Book Review: The Magicians

I’d heard a lot of things about Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.  It’s good, it’s not good, it’s exciting, it’s boring.  People told me it was the sort of book you either love or you hate.  Sword and Laser had chosen it as a book pick a while ago, and SyFy has recently optioned it for a television series, so I decided it might be a good time to check it out and decide for myself.

The Magicians is the story of Quentin Coldwater, a Brooklyn native who, instead of going to a prestigious Ivy League, finds himself able to attend Brakebills, a college for magicians.  There he meets other young magicians, learns how to use his abilities, and searches for a purpose in life.  After finishing school he and his classmates look for a purpose in the wider world, and end up going on a fantastical adventure.

I’d often heard The Magicians described as “Harry Potter for adults.”  Well, maybe if Harry Potter were emo.  And if Harry Potter wasn’t quite so focused on what he was learning at school.  And if Harry Potter didn’t have really awesome friends.  Then sure, maybe.  Except not really.  Because Harry Potter had a purpose in life – to defeat Voldemort.  Quentin doesn’t really have a purpose.  He wants one, but he can’t quite figure out what it is.  And, as with many talented people who have skills but no way to use them, he looks for distractions.  So, no, it’s really not at all like Harry Potter.  More like a story about a random Slytherin extra who isn’t cool enough to hang out with Draco.

It’s funny because the book tends to generate very polarizing reviews, but I somehow seem to fall squarely into a middle ground.  There are moments when I completely identify with the characters:

The room filled with the collective rustling of paper, like a flock of birds taking off.  Heads bowed in unison.  Quentin recognized this motion.  It was the motion of a bunch of high-powered type-A test killers getting down to their bloody work.  That was alright.  He was one of them. p.22

Then there are other times when their actions are so incomprehensible to me that it breaks my brain (the way the whole snow fox thing played out… ugh).  The pacing is just fast enough to keep me interested, but I don’t care quite enough to be fully engaged (I would alternate between reading the book 50-75 pages at a time, or nothing at all.  It took me 3 days to read the last 25 pages).  The whole time it felt like I was finding moments of brilliance, but only after digging through pages of whiny emotional drudgery.

I don’t know, perhaps it is the age I am reading this book.  I feel that if I’d read it when I was younger I would have found all of the characters to be whiny, emotional, and making stupid life choices.  I think if I were reading this a bit older I wouldn’t have the patience to deal with all of their mopey-ness.  But I’m sort of at that age where everyone is questioning what they are doing with their life, and why people have made bad decisions and hurt them, and how they can deal with all the pain and problems life has dealt them.  I would be lying to say I haven’t had some (well, many) thoughts similar to Quentin in recent years.  But it doesn’t really mean I want to be like him.  I lived in an honors dorm when I attended my undergraduate university – it is somewhat surprising how frighteningly similar some of these characters are to people I’ve known.  Which I suppose should make me more empathetic to the character’s behavior and situations.  Of course, I don’t talk to most of those people anymore, so, then again, maybe not.

Overall I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this book.  There were times when I rather enjoyed the prose, and others when I found it tedious and dull.  There were times when the characters were totally my people, and other times when I wanted to close the page on their little world and never return.  There were periods of this story that I would read obsessively, and other times I had to force myself through it.  I think my main issue with the book as a whole is that the characters never seemed to learn or grow from their experiences.  Each new slight wounded them in some deep way, but it didn’t really force them to grow as a person (as a magician, yes, but as a human being, no).  In some ways I found this rather realistic (we don’t all learn the lessons we need right away), but in other ways it was troubling and annoying.

In the end I don’t know if I would recommend this book.  I think it is the sort of writing that one either connects with, or doesn’t.  I’m in a rather oddball place of feeling like I appreciate much of the writing, but I don’t know if I actually like the story.  I suppose I will continue with the series, but I don’t know if I feel the need to jump into the second book right away.  Living in their world is rather depressing, and the real world is depressing enough without Quentin reminding me of that fact during my reading time.  I definitely need some time away from these characters before I deal with their future adventures.

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