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Book Review of The Magicians by Lev Grossman

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Being a fan of books that can meld reality with the supernatural, I of course picked up The Magicians by Lev Grossman in a heartbeat when I saw it at the bookstore. I really had no idea that I would be in for a such a wild ride.

Grossman is a talented writer and this is a beautifully well-written book, achingly so at times, violent at others. I felt I was in good hands with the main character, Quentin Coldwater, as Grossman carried me through this journey, for that’s what it really was: how magic made Quentin’s journey evolve from selfish boy to jaded man — something like an anti-hero.

Grossman quickly involved me in the story of one Quentin Coldwater (love the symbolism of that name) an outsider, a brilliant nerd and amateur magician dissatisfied with the lot in his young life. Disappointed that the world is not like the enchanted land of Fillory, akin to that found in a series of books much like The Chronicles of Narnia, in which the Chatwin children went back and forth between this secret land of bunnies and other creatures, Quentin finds real life wanting. After going to an interview for Harvard in which he find the interviewer dead, a mysterious paramedic gives Quentin a clue to help him find a way into a passageway that leads to a secret magical college (a la Harry Potter) called Brakebills, where he is accepted after an arduous interview process, one in which he realizes he truly does possess real magical talents. Maybe something like Fillory existed after all.

Quentin spends the next portion of the book detailing Quentin’s college years, learning what he thought would be the excitement of learning magic, yet is  disappointingly the tedious rote studying and memorization of spells. In his boredom, Quentin bonds with the studious Alice, a tiny, shy sprite of a girl, with whom he falls quickly in love. Quentin also meets Penny, the completely unlikable mohawked boy he encountered during his interviews for Brakebills. Along with Penny, Quentin and Alice advance quickly through the school’s archaic learning processes, as they are all found to have extraordinary magical abilities.

Labeled “Physical Kids” for their ability to manipulate their physical surroundings, the group bonds in their second year with some older “physical” kids: Janet, Eliot, and Josh; yet what they mostly do is drink, like many American college kids. Year Three finds them turning into geese and flying to Antarctica, where they are turned back into humans and forced to study silently for three months straight in basically a prison-like cell, with breaks only for food and water. They are let out occasionally and are once turned into foxes, with memorable results.

One unfortunate incident occurs back at Brakebills, when, during one interminable lecture, Quentin decides to play a magical practical joke on the professor which somehow goes awry, as he somehow conjures up a horrible, violent character from another world who stops time and murders a classmate. Labeled “The Beast” by the director of the school, Quentin never owns up to conjuring this spell and is beset by a horrible guilt over the classmate; and yet at the same time he is fascinated at what he had done.

At this point, one of the teachers wisely and poignantly tells them a concept of what magic may be: if the universe was a house that God made for everyone, perhaps magic is the tools he left behind, possibly by accident, in the garage. That perhaps using magic was as dangerous as kids finding these power tools and using them without direction or precaution. This gives Quentin pause — is the ability to use magic all that he had hoped it would be?

Upon graduation, Quentin and Alice move to New York City where Alice continues to bury herself in books and Quentin continues to party and drink, spiraling out of control. They had distanced themselves from Penny, so when he shows up after one particularly nasty argument, in which Quentin has done something unthinkably hurtful to Alice, the group is shocked at what Penny has to say: Fillory really does exist.

The rest of The Magicians takes place in Fillory, as the kids jump at the chance to enter the realm of their childhood fantasies, Quentin most of all. However, they find it much, much different than what they read about in the books. Darker, filled with magical creatures (The Beast shows up again), yes, but much, much more dangerous. It is here that the group uses their powers in ways that they never knew they were capable of; and for me, the writing became so fantastical and surreal, I found it at times hard to follow. However, I also found myself taken aback at several points as Grossman revealed certain surprises I never saw coming. Truly marvelous and original.

The conclusion is, well, you’ll have to read it for yourself. There’s definitely a true ending; however, I believe Grossman is a very smart man. He left it open enough that there could be a sequel, which I would definitely read.

All in all, I enjoyed reading The Magicians immensely. It took me to another world (and another world within that world) and isn’t that what a great book is supposed to do? I also liked that this book was truly an adult book. While the kids were young — college age, early twenties — they were dealing with mature situations and adult feelings. There was no elderly mentor to wave his wand and make the bad guy go away. Kind of like in real life.

 

 

Grossman is also the author of the novel Codex and is a senior writer and book critic for TIME magazine and is co-author of the TIME.com blog NerdWorld.

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