The Book Junkie

Book descriptions call Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” a “post-adolescent Harry Potter.” Sure, if Harry Potter were a purposeless, chronically whiney, egoistic drunk. Quentin (aka Q) is a dissatisfied high school senior who is obsessed with a book series from his childhood. Fillory, the magic land these books inhabit, is Q’s ideal world. If he could live there, all his problems would be solved. So he believes. After taking a rigorous exam, Q learns that he’s a magician. He leaves high school to attend the mysterious Brakebills Academy, where he will learn about magic and how to use it. Quentin finds school—even at Brakebills—tedious and most of his classmates unfriendly. Still, he spends his five years at Brakebills learning the techniques and rules of magic. After graduation, he moves to New York, where he lives with the few friends he made at school. He lives a boring life of booze, drugs, and meaninglessness, until an acquaintance from Brakebills shows up and tells them that Fillory is real. Now that he knows his childhood dream actually exists, Q feels some purpose. With his friends, he prepares to travel the multiverse and go adventuring in Fillory.


Upon entering Fillory, though, they discover that all is not as they thought. The world has changed from the books’ descriptions. They take as their quest the restoration of Fillory to its former state. Their quest will change not just Fillory, but the group themselves. They have the opportunity to become kings and queens of the land if they defeat the monster that plagues the land. They defeat the monster, but at a terrible price: the deaths of two of their own— one of whom is Q’s love—and the realization that it wasn’t really what they were after. The cost of triumph was much higher than Q was willing to pay, and he abandons his notion that being in Fillory will make everything better. Returning to Earth, Quentin takes on an ordinary job and tries to live an ordinary life. Really, though, he’s only avoiding dealing with his pain. In the end, his friends show back up and convince him to take up the quest again, as if it would make everything better this time. There’s even a replacement love for Q; his high school crush, who was always inaccessible.


First what I enjoyed: the story had a lot of potential, and it’s a cool concept. The characters had a lot of potential, and occasionally seemed quite real. Grossman portrays the post-college ennui quite realistically. The characters have all the possibilities in the world in front of them in school, then have to face the real world, where reality overpowers possibility. While I didn’t appreciate how the characters dealt with the let down, I was able to understand what they felt. Since the concept of the story was so interesting and I could sympathize with some of what the characters felt, I was compelled to keep reading.


Now what I didn’t enjoy: Even though I kept reading, the book never lived up to the potential I expected. The characters often felt flat and repetitive to me (although, life really can be like that), and the approach to being a magician frankly took the magic out of magic for me. Instead of being about the power and possibilities of magic, it’s more about technical perfection—moving the hands just so, pronouncing words (in any number of languages) perfectly. Magic isn’t universal; it only exists if the magician uses it perfectly.


Again, although I like the premise of the story, Grossman recycles a number of already-used stories: Narnia, the Multiverse, Harry Potter-esque school story. It ended up being unoriginal and disappointing. Moreover, the ending felt forced. Not only did Quentin never deal with his loss, he abandons the lessons he thought he learned from his first voyage to Fillory. He does show resilience in his willingness to try again, but it didn’t feel right to me.


Overall, the story was okay, but not great. If I had known how disappointed I was going to be, I wouldn’t have bothered.

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