Written by: Lev Grossman
#1 / 3 of The Magicians trilogy
Rating: 4/5 stars
Summary: Like everyone else, precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater assumes that magic isn’t real, until he finds himself admitted to a very secretive and exclusive college of magic in upstate New York. There he indulges in joys of college-friendship, love, sex, and booze- and receives a rigorous education in modern sorcery. But magic doesn’t bring the happiness and adventure Quentin thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends stumble upon a secret that sets them on a remarkable journey that may just fulfill Quentin’s yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than they’d imagined.
“But you, my friends, you found another way: a way to use the pain. To burn it as fuel, for light and warmth. You have learned to break the world that has tried to break you.”
Review: I immediately bought this book off ThriftBooks when I saw someone describe it as “like a mixture of Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia… but for adults”, and honestly, I was not disappointed.That isn’t to say it IS Harry Potter/Chronicles of Narnia, because it most certainly is not – it just has a lot of similar strains of plot. Nothing can ever truly hold up to those two series for me, because of the childhood nostalgia attached to both, but I think their same level of mysticism was definitely shown throughout Grossman’s novel. The protagonists sometimes read like antagonists of other stories, which I love, and they read like regular humans. The plot, although relatively slow throughout a good middle portion of the book, is creative, connected, and thought out. And even Grossman’s creation of their “magical” world at Brakebills isn’t too far-fetched, making it easy to imagine as part of New York and relatable as it isn’t some hidden Scottish castle.
One incredible thing about Grossman’s magical world is that it isn’t as simple as Rowling’s. Grossmans’ magicians are shown taxing themselves to learn simple spells that Hogwarts denizens would learn when they were twelve years old. They learn various languages, complex hand signals, and have to be aware of the conditions of an environment or world when they cast the spell, lest they want death. Even while at Brakebills, wayward magic commonly kills or maims students, or decimates portions of a class. The complexity of their magic is written beautifully by Grossman, and I honestly wish there was a whole additional book just about that. In addition to Brakebills, Grossman goes on to explain the role of magic in the outside world, as well as in additional worlds beyond the one that we know. Whereas I’m normally a little wary of stories that switch between worlds, Grossman handles the transition beautifully and creates a whole new dimension that is even more intriguing than Brakebills. Beyond all this, Grossman does a stunning job connecting these two worlds with his plot, which I feel efficiently explains every small plot device he uses throughout the book while simultaneously keeping the reader effectively engaged.
To be honest, I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, but still felt strangely attached to them, which I think is another indicator of how engrossing the writing is. First off, the main character Quentin is a little twerp. He is Harry Potter, albeit a little darker, in the sense that nobody, including the reader, particularly likes him enough to claim him as their favorite, and that he is even sometimes hated by the reader for his actions. He is arrogant but incredibly awkward, willing to blame all of his troubles on others’ rather than be responsible, and unconditionally and irreversibly unhappy with almost everything. Then, Quentin is surrounded by similarly powered magicians: the brilliant and initially shy Alice, the flamboyant and misleadingly arrogant Elliot, the overly confident and sensual Janet, the mysteriously angsty and intelligent Penny, and more. Unfortunately, Grossman doesn’t go too far into describing these side characters, but I think that also aids in the reader’s dislike of Quentin, through which most of the novel is told. Beyond them, the main villain, AKA The Beast, is terrifying, immensely powerful, and has an incredible plot line leading up to the final scenes. Perhaps the main reason that this book did not get a 5/5 for me, however, has to do with the abrupt ending, which I will leave for you all to find yourselves.
Overall, this book exceeded my expectations, which, to be honest, were relatively low. I thought all of the good reviews I had read were too hyped, but it turns out that I was wrong. It definitely is a lot darker than I was expecting it to be, and slower around the middle, but the last 100 pages or so had me hooked into the series for good. Additionally, I think it’s notable that I didn’t even particularly like the characters that much, although that is usually a huge selling point for me; it is just that, like Quentin and his mates, I am too intrigued by the worlds of Brakebills and Fillory that I can’t help but become involved. Ultimately, I can’t wait to continue to read this series, and delve deeper into the worlds Grossman has created.