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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Magicians

Lev Grossman

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To purchase The Magicians

Title: The Magicians
Author: Lev Grossman
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009
Length: 402 pages
Availability: The Magicians - US
The Magicians - UK
The Magicians - Canada
The Magicians - India
Les magiciens - France
Fillory - Deutschland
Il mago - Italia
  • The Magicians was made into a TV series that ran from 2015 to 2020

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Our Assessment:

B- : solid writing, but poorly (and annoyingly) paced

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 14/8/2009 Matthew Shaer
Entertainment Weekly A- 4/8/2009 Jeff Giles
The NY Times Book Rev. . 13/9/2009 Michael Agger
The New Yorker . 24/8/2009 .
San Francisco Chronicle . 28/8/2009 Michael Berry
USA Today C 17/8/2009 Deirdre Donahue
The Washington Post . 1/8/2009 Keith Donohue

  From the Reviews:
  • "Grossman has a light, pleasant prose style, and he can occasionally be very funny. (...) Much of the problem is tonal: Grossman has written both an adult coming-of-age tale -- rife with vivid scenes of sex, drugs, and heartbreak -- and a whimsical yarn about forest creatures. The subjects arenít mutually exclusive, and yet when stirred together so haphazardly, the effect is jarring. More damaging still is the plot, which takes about 150 pages to gain any steam, surges dramatically in the bookís final third, and then peters out with a couple chapters left to go." - Matthew Shaer, Bookforum

  • "If it weren't so sly and lyrical, the brazen evocation of Harry Potter would seem suicidal, like the casting of a spell the sorcerer can't handle. But The Magicians is an homage to both J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis, as well as an exploration of what might happen if troubled kids were let loose in the supernatural realms they grew up reading about." - Jeff Giles, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Itís the original magic -- storytelling -- that occasionally trips Grossman up. Though the plot turns new tricks by the chapter, the characters have a fixed, Not Another Teen Movie quality. (...) The Magicians is a jarring attempt to go where those novels do not: into drugs, disappointment, anomie, the place and time when magic leaks out of your life. Perhaps a fantasy novel meant for adults canít help being a strange mess of effects." - Michael Agger, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This gripping novel draws on the conventions of contemporary and classic fantasy novels (most obviously, those of J. K. Rowling and C. S. Lewis) in order to upend them, and tell a darkly cunning story about the power of imagination itself." - The New Yorker

  • "(A) wry and original examination of what happens when you achieve your heart's desire. Funny, suspenseful and sad, The Magicians ranks as one of the year's best fantasy novels." - Michael Berry, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The premise of The Magicians is original. It's like a video game featuring scenarios from classic fantasy writers. And sometimes Grossman can be slyly funny, as when he describes what conversation with a real talking bear would probably be like: dull monologues on honey. But it becomes a chore to slog through this homage to fantasy filtered through an ironic 21st-century sensibility, complete with sex and profanity. Nifty premise aside, Quentin and company never fully grab our attention." - Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

  • "Grossman, Time magazine's book critic and a frequent writer on technology, clearly has read his Potter and much more. While this story invariably echoes a whole body of romantic coming-of-age tales, Grossman's American variation is fresh and compelling. Like a jazz musician, he riffs on Potter and Narnia, but makes it his own." - Keith Donohue, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Harry Potter-books, Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, C.S.Lewis' Narnia-chronicles: that is the company Lev Grossman's The Magicians wants to keep. From direct references -- a joking reference to quidditch, and "Hermione with her teeth in Harry Potter" -- to the invented five (or so) novel 1930s Narnia-like (really like) fantasy series by a Christopher Plover, Fillory and Further, The Magicians embraces these fantasy worlds and, emphatically, these books (and these sorts of books). The Magicians is a bookish fantasy in, among other senses, that the alternate world found in such books is one the characters enter -- in this case, Plover's Fillory. In other words, it fulfills one of the fantasies readers of the Rowling and Lewis books have: to enter those worlds. Not satisfied with writing fan-fiction on some Harry Potter website (and hampered by copyright law that doesn't permit (re)use of Rowling's and Lewis' etc. characters), Grossman has gone ahead and invented his own fictional worlds.
       The fact that The Magicians fits so openly in this line of fantasy tales turns out to be one of its more appealing elements. Grossman acknowledges his debts openly, and has some fun with them, and so that works out quite well. What works less well are his other ambitions: surprisingly, he doesn't take a page from Rowling and Lewis and opt for the multi-volume epic (though a sequel is apparently in the works ...), and instead stuffs all his material into far too little space. The resulting odd pacing, and the consequences of it, undermine the whole terribly: spread patiently over four or five volumes, this could have been a lot of fun. Crammed into one -- think all of Harry Potter and Narnia packed together into four hundred pages -- it has its moments but adds up to a surprisingly thin tale.
       An interesting and promising choice Grossman makes is to have his protagonist be a near-adult: the novel begins with Quentin Coldwater, in his senior year of high school, being accepted to Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. It is, in every respect (from the hidden magical passageways to get there, to its near-invisibility from the outside world -- as well as, of course, what is taught there) a Hogwarts that is not for children but for university-age youths. It is all very Harry Potter, with Quentin suddenly learning that he has certain gifts and finding his life changed as he goes off to this strange school, but also has considerable potential -- and Brakebills is a fun piece of invention, with Grossman capturing Quentin's sense of disbelief at what he's lucked into nicely:

Even aside from the many and varied laws of thermodynamics that were violated there on a regular basis, it was just too good to be true.
       Alas, while there's a bit of semi-adult activity (notably some drinking and sex -- i.e. the usual college stuff), what's most striking about Quentin's college years is the general level of immaturity. Quentin, in particular, shows very little maturity -- he remains literally a schoolboy -- and there is essentially no personal growth to his character, his passage to adulthood flatlining over the course of the story. (The fact that he's an unsympathetic shit for long stretches (as are a surprisingly large number of the other characters) may be realistic -- that moody college age (though in his case it feels more like that moody tween age) ... -- but doesn't help matters.)
       Even if the material and rites of (magical) passage are often familiar, Grossman has some great material here, and he writes well. Quentin's admission to Brakebills is well-handled, and the years at this fabulous institution have great promise. But, limited to a single volume, Grossman rushes through Quentin's college years, and there's little character development or even much of a sense of this magical world. Almost all the characters remain (rather uninteresting) ciphers, an attribute here or there about all there is to them.
       Much of the fun of fantasy is in the details of alternate and super-natural realities, and when he bothers Grossman offers quite a few fascinating and well-conceived bits of magic and reality -- but he doesn't take the time to construct this fantasy world fully. He'll toss some bits in when it strikes his fancy, but too much remains in isolation. And many threads of the story are left dangling, beginning with the fate of Julia, the girl Quentin had a crush on but who didn't (quite) make it into Brakebills; Quentin's parents (and, indeed, most of the muggles human world are also rather oddly left on the very periphery, and not very well dealt with.
       The big plot-twist in Grossman's novel comes when Quentin -- a huge fan of the Fillory and Further-books -- and some other former Brakebills students find passage to Fillory. It turns out not to be a fictional world ..... This episode/adventure should have been volume three or four of 'The Magicians', but Grossman crams it into his one volume, making for a major switch. The adventures there are fine enough, and nicely tied in to the (previously-thought-of-as-fictional) Plover books, but could have also used more elaboration. The change of pace and place is rather abrupt -- as is then the conclusion. Yes, this is a book that at nearly every turn should have been drawn out more.
       Grossman means Quentin to be living in a fantasy-land, to be the boy that never grew up, even (or especially) as he embarks on his post-school lifestyle in New York:
And you could get drugs here -- actual drugs ! They had all the power in the world, and no work to do, and nobody to stop them. They ran riot through the city.
       But that's just another episode fit awkwardly in and completely underdeveloped (despite the obvious potential) .....
       And even after that, Quentin is still the little boy, looking forward to entering that real fantasy world -- and yet thinking:
And when he thought about all the happiness waiting for him in Fillory, Quentin almost felt like he didn't deserve it.
       Given how dense he is -- he's really expecting happiness to be waiting for him in Fillory ? he's really still this deluded and naïve ? -- he of course hardly deserves it (but then, readers surely already see very clearly that whatever it is that awaits him there, it's probably not going to resemble happiness much ...).
       The girl he hooks up with, Alice -- she's Quentin's "girlfriend" for much of the story, but, despite an interesting backstory, remains pretty much a shell of a character, and their romance isn't particularly convincing -- diagnoses what may be his fundamental problem:
That's what makes you different from the rest of us, Quentin. You actually still believe in magic. You do realize, right, that nobody else does ? I mean, we all know magic is real. But you really believe in it.
       But even a clever idea like that is left completely underdeveloped and underutilized, and readers get little sense that Quentin has a particularly different attitude towards magic than everyone else.
       The Magicians is a frustrating book: perfectly readable -- Grossman writes fluidly and quite well, and occasionally displays a very nice touch -- but the story meanders here and there, rarely grabbing hold. It's full of good ideas and concepts, but also simply breezes over far too much. Grossman's solid writing and the fact that so much of the story is whisked through also obscures the fact that this is a very thin story in other respects: there's not much to these characters, and certainly not much character development.
       The Magicians could have been a very good novel-series, but stuffed into this one volume it doesn't work particularly well. One hopes Grossman is much more patient in the sequel .....

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 August 2009

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The Magicians: Reviews: The Magicians - the TV series: Lev Grossman: Other books by Lev Grossman under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Lev Grossman was born in 1969.

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© 2009-2024 the complete review

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