The Magicians
Lev Grossman

Category: Fantasy
Morality: F
Writing: C-

It is entirely apparent in reading The Magicians that the author is attempting to write a ‘Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia for grownups’. However, unfortunately, his conception of ‘grownup’ consists primarily of disaffected postmodernism with a generous side of alcoholism.

In the beginning of the book, Quentin and a select group of his peers are whisked away to magic school at the beginning of their senior year of conventional high school. Although Brakebills is supposed to be a school for magic, we rarely see actual magic being performed. Instead, we are introduced to a group of disaffected teenagers who spend most of their time drinking booze and descending into either cynicism or self-pity. They’re all too self-absorbed to be very likable, but for awhile I held out hope that they would discover some meaning to life, the universe, magic…anything. I mean, supposedly, they’re learning how to do some really neat stuff…don’t they have any vision for its use? But their studies in magic continued to seem pointless, with no villains to oppose and no purpose, moral or otherwise, to their education. Magic provides them with occasional fun or enjoyment, but never with true delight or joy, in spite of Quentin’s intense desire – even obsession – with finding some sort of joy in life.

Eventually, I realized that this was the author’s central Point. Now, a book with a Point can be successful. But it takes a really good writer to pull that off. And it takes an even better writer to pull off a book wherein the Point is that life is Pointless. The first part of this book is occasionally creative enough to be interesting, but mostly it’s just depressing and boring.

Believe it or not, things actually go downhill from there. See, Quentin has spent his whole life secretly obsessed with a series of books about a sibling group of British schoolchildren who visit a magical land called Fillory (meticulously modeled after Narnia). His graduation from magic school precipitates a period of dissipation (sex, booze, and drugs), in addition to further depths of self-centeredness, but he is briefly pulled from the psychological morass in which he lives by the discovery that Fillory is real, and that he and his friends have the ability to visit there. Finally, Quentin hopes, he will become able to experience true joy and delight. Maybe he’ll finally find something that will make him happy.

But no. Predictably, Fillory is just as disappointing to Quentin as Brakebills, and, in the end, more horrifying. The Aslan-figure is a powerless figurehead who spouts mumbo-jumbo when asked why he allows people to suffer. The group finally comes face to face with a villain worthy of opposition, but Quentin gets no satisfaction from opposing him, because he was manipulated into doing so, and because the cost of victory proves too high. Disaffection and hopelessness reign supreme.

I found the book’s ending incongruous. Despite all the evidence of the last 398 pages that joy and delight were phantoms, never to be achieved, in the final two pages, Quentin seemed ready to give the quest another go. It was hard to picture it working out any better than it had for him the last six or so times he’d tried it. Not only this, but Quentin also comes dangerously close to inadvertently emulating the only true villain of the story through his choice in the conclusion of the book.

I am reminded of the old saying (or maybe just poster): “The only consistent feature in all your dissatisfied relationships is you.” Either Quentin’s dissatisfaction with anything and everything stems from his own selfishness and moral bankruptcy, or it’s even worse, and reality itself is so horrible that joy is patently impossible and despair is the only reasonable response. Either way, I sure am thankful that the real world – our real world – is not hopeless and meaningless in the way it is portrayed in this book.

Content warning: There is lots of sexual content and crude sexual references, though there are no actual explicit sex scenes. There are also a couple of disturbing violent bits, though the major R-rated factor in this book consists in loads and loads of extremely foul language. Oh, yeah, and don’t forget the abundant alcohol abuse!

Posted by Sasha | October 29, 2010

3 Responses to “The Magicians”

  1. This review exemplifies why I love this site so much! Nowhere else that I’ve found is there such a great analysis of both the content and moral perspective (or lack thereof) of fantasy novels (with “realistic” novels the latter at least is usually evident from the premise) unless it’s by searching through hundreds of Amazon reviews.

    Now I know I don’t need to waste my time on this book, no matter how trendy the Harry Potter spinoffs are these days. Not that the self-satisfied “Harry Potter for grownups” tagline was attractive anyway. Thanks!

  2. Thanks! I’m glad you find the site helpful! The reviews are always fun to write, too. It was tempting not to finish reading this book once I realized where it was going, but I persevered because I wanted to be able to write about it! 🙂 “Self-satisfied” is a good term for this book’s tone; it was apparent that the author felt that he was being much cleverer than I found him to be!

  3. I always get excited when I notice the link to this blog in my browser’s Bookmarks and click on it, to find a new review! It’s great to see popular fantasy and science fiction evaluated as literature in the light of the ultimate issues of faith.

    In the case of this particular review, I think the review is probably both more entertaining and more meaningful than the novel that it’s about. 😉

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