The Magicians by Lev Grossman

GUNN: How do you avoid reality?
VIRGINIA: Money.  It cures everything but boredom and food cures boredom, so there you go.
Angel, "Happy Anniversary"

Several weeks ago, Publishers Weekly's science fiction blog got bent out of shape over the New York Times review of Lev Grossman's The Magicians, in which reviewer Michael Agger made statements like "Fantasy novels involve magic and are a little bit like magic themselves.  To work, they require of their readers a willingness to be fooled, to be gulled into a world of walking trees and talking lions.  They affect us most powerfully as teenagers, but then most of us move on to sterner, staider stuff."  Such generalizations, insisted blogger Josh Jasper, were "so demeaning towards the genre as to stand out" from even the Grey Lady's general inability to grok it, and represented the belief that "Fantasy novels are suitable for entertaining uncultured teenagers, and require sneering at to make sure adults don't revert."  Reading the review, I couldn't see the reason for Jasper's ire.  It seemed obvious that Agger was using the term fantasy interchangeably with Narnia-esque, children's fantasy novels.  A silly, ignorant error, to be sure, and disappointing coming from a reviewer for such a respected publication, but if one performed a mental search-and-replace on his review it--and the generalizations it made about the genre--turned out to be thoroughly unobjectionable.  It was only once I read The Magicians that I realized that Agger's assumption that all of fantasy is contained within the seven volumes of Narnia is shared by the novel's characters, and perhaps even its author.

The Magicians is told from the point of view of a young man with the unlikely, storybook name of Quentin Coldwater.  A seventeen year old overachiever from Park Slope, Brooklyn, Quentin is diverted from his path to the Ivy League by an invitation to interview at Brakebills, the American college of magic.  The next four years and 300 pages of Quentin's life are spent at Brakebills, where he intersperses magical studies with the standard tropes of the college novel--drinking, sex, ill-advised pranks, his first hesitant and mostly unsuccessful attempts at relating to others as an adult, desperate attempts at reinvention.  He falls in love with a shy, brilliant magician named Alice, and together they join an exclusive clique called The Physical Kids (named for their magical discipline, though these are rather vaguely described, and it's probably best to think of the different disciplines as Grossman's analogue to the Hogwarts houses).  Together, these mundane and magical experiences make up an episodic, aimless narrative, but the former are amusing and on occasion even witty (of a classmate who conceives an enmity for Quentin: "He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog."), and the latter include the novel's most inventive, evocative passages:
Quentin was vaguely aware that, though he'd lost the lion's share of his cognitive capacity in the transformation, he'd also picked up a couple of new senses.  One had to do with air: he could perceive wind speed and direction and air temperature ac clearly as whorls of smoke in a wind tunnel.  The sky now appeared to him as a three-dimensional map of currents and eddies, friendly rising heat plumes and dense dangerous sinks of cool air.  He could feel the prickle of distant cumulus clouds swapping bursts of positive and negative electrical charge.  Quentin's sense of direction had sharpened, too, to the point where it felt like he had a finely engineered compass floating in oil, perfectly balanced, at the center of his brain.
This is all very enjoyable, in a plotless, low-key sort of way (though it does raise the question of how the author of a novel this shapeless feels justified in crowing about the triumph of plot), but really, what is the point?  Mixing Harry Potter with the college novel turns out to produce just that--two tastes that create nothing new between them.  In the end, one has to conclude that it's the juxtaposition of the children's fantasy and the college setting that is the point, the novel's central gimmick, and that we're meant to be astonished at a Hogwarts-like setting that is bereft of high-flown adventure.  It's an absence that seems to astonish the characters, most of whom are fans of the Fillory novels by Christopher Plover, a Narnia analogue about English children who travel to a fantasy world, and who explicitly state and implicitly behave as though they think Brakebills is Fillory, and that in entering it they have signed up for adventure.

Magic, the characters seem to assume, is not only going to solve all of their problems, but imbue their lives with narrative.  A magical world, to them, is a world in which they are the protagonists of a Fillory-like story--straightforward, and divided into easily achievable good and instantly recognizable evil.  To a fantasy reader, this is a perplexing attitude, until one realizes that none of the novel's characters are fantasy readers.  When Alice and Quentin join the Physical Kids, they have to force their way into the group's clubhouse to prove their worthiness, and are told that "It used to be that you could say 'friend' in Elvish and it would let you in … Now too many people have read Tolkien."  But it's painfully clear that beyond Tolkien, Rowling, and Plover, no one at the school--or at least not within Quentin's group--has read any further into fantasy.  It's almost amazing how much of the novel would have been obviated if someone had handed these poor kids some China Miéville, or Susanna Clarke, or even George R.R. Martin.  The lack of any awareness of fantasy from the New Weird onwards begs the question of whether it's Grossman himself who is ignorant of the many authors who have pitted the magical against the mundane, or whether he's posited an alternate universe in which these authors don't exist so that he can make his own stab at the subject unimpeded.  Either way, the comparison is unkind.

The business of the novel begins in its second half, in which Quentin and Alice graduate from Brakebills and move to New York with the other Physical Kids, become miserable with boredom, and, as we knew they must, find a doorway into Fillory.  As is so often the case, what seemed funny and charming in college becomes aggravating and off-putting in the real world, and The Magicians's quality drops precipitously in this half of the story.  The disaffected aimlessness that was if not appealing then at least understandable at school turns into full-blown nihilism once there are no longer any demands on Quentin's time, and he and his friends occupy themselves with drinking and party games as they continue to wait for magic to inject narrative into their lives.  Many reviewers have compared The Magicians to a fusion between Harry Potter and Donna Tartt's The Secret History, and it's in the post-Brakebills chapters of the novel that it becomes apparent how poorly the story about the lost wizard raised among mundanes maps onto the story of the out of place, working class young man who is sucked into an exclusive clique of rich students at an expensive private college.

Much of Quentin's initial attraction to Brakebills can be traced to its opulent, richly appointed campus.  To Quentin, Brakebills's luxury--which, as it does in the Harry Potter novels, takes on a decidedly 19th century cast--denotes solidity, as opposed to the mundane world's shabbiness, and it is deeply important to him.  His most vibrant impressions of Brakebills when he first comes to it is of its well-kept, exclusive beauty--the manicured lawn, the airy classroom in which he takes his entrance exam, the beautiful dorm room he's assigned--"The outer wall was stone; the inner was taken up with dark wooden cabinets and cubbies.  There was a Victorian-looking writing desk and a mirror.  His bed was tucked into a wooden alcove.  There were small vertical windows all along the outer wall.  He had to admit it was a highly satisfactory room."--and when he goes home on vacation, he finds that "his parents' house was unbearable to him now.  After his little curved tower-top room, how could he go back to his dingy old bedroom in Brooklyn with its crumbly white paint and its iron bars on the window and its view of a tiny walled-in dirt patch?"

What's often left unsaid in fantasy worlds of the Hogwarts or Brakebills ilk is that the reason we no longer have these kinds of opulent, hand-crafted settings is that they were originally available only to a select few, and only because of the efforts of a much larger underclass.  The mass-produced, automated ugliness that Quentin recoils from is the 20th century's answer to the disappearance of this underclass as more and more of its members began demanding to be the ones who had their baths drawn rather than the ones doing the drawing.  When fantasy novels, especially ones that posit the existence of a secret magical elite, deliver this kind of opulence to their characters free of charge, what they're actually doing is using magic as a substitute for wealth and class.  So that when Quentin expresses his desire for the solidity and beauty of Brakebills, it's hard not to see him as the middle class kid desperately trying to hold on to his position in a rich people's enclave.  Except that Quentin is in fact quite well off, and only disdains his parents' Park Slope apartment and later their McMansion in the Boston suburbs because to him these represent a shabby imitation of Brakebills's luxury.  He wants his wealth made, not manufactured--"[the curtains] were coarse-woven, but it wasn't the familiar, depressing, fake-authentic coarseness of high-end Earth housewares, which merely imitated the real coarseness of fabrics that were woven by hand out of genuine necessity."  Quentin, in other words, is a rich kid who wants to be super-rich.

It's not exactly a sympathetic desire, but it is an understandable one.  It's Grossman's choice to overlay the Secret History aspect of his novel--in which the desire for Brakebills is the desire for money and social status--with the Narnia reading--in which the desire for Brakebills is the desire for meaning and adventure--that causes problems, because it paints Quentin as the sort of person who is shocked, shocked to discover that in the absence of either the financial impetus or the drive to make something of himself, he is bored and miserable.  It means that the latter half of the novel is made up almost entirely of the characters complaining that magic, for which read money, hasn't made them happy.   It means that the characters mistake for deep, existential, untreatable misery what is probably nothing more than boredom.

When they arrive at Fillory, Quentin's friend Janet bitterly complains to Ember, the land's Aslan-figure, that "We human beings are unhappy all the time.  We hate ourselves and we hate each other and sometimes we wish You or Whoever had never created us or this shit-ass world."  This, apparently, is something we're supposed to take seriously--these rich, powerful, beautiful young people complaining about their terrible lot in life, and concluding that because magic hasn't made them happy, those who don't have magic must live lives of unalloyed misery only briefly alleviated by commercial entertainment and internet porn.  The possibility that people might be happier, and more likely to find meaning in their lives, in the absence of the kind of magic that equals money, never seems to occur to them.  No, the characters conclude, the fault must be in the world--"Why now, when it was actually happening, did the seductions of Fillory feel so crude and unwanted?  Its groping hands so clumsy?  He thought he'd left this feeling behind long ago in Brookly, or at least at Brakebills.  How could it have followed him here, of all places?  … Or maybe this time was different, maybe there really was something off here.  Maybe the hollowness was in Fillory, not in him?"

It is only Alice, the smartest and coolest character in the novel (though her coolness is somewhat called into question by her choice to spend so much of her time around these pointless, boring people) who recognizes that nothing will make Quentin happy--not Brakebills, not Fillory, not her love.  That he will always be on the lookout for that unattainable perfection against which his good fortune seems worthless.  If Grossman had ended the novel on this recognition, it might have been an interesting, if overly familiar, work.  Instead, he makes the inexplicable choice to reward Quentin.  After suffering a terrible loss in Fillory, Quentin returns to New York and leaves magic behind--for which read takes a made-up job at a magician-owned company and spends his days surfing the net and his weekends distracting himself with "the multifarious meaningless entertainments and distractions with which the real world supplied [him]."  In other words, he's learned nothing.  He looks at the world--full of people working, striving, building, learning, working towards something--and instead of learning from them, concludes that they are all even more miserable than he is.  It would be funny if it weren't so tragic, and tragic if Grossman's solution to this predicament weren't so infuriating.  The remaining Physical Kids track Quentin down and offer him another trip to Fillory, to take their place as kings and queens, and after some deliberation, Quentin accepts.  The novel ends on this acceptance, and seems to expect us to read it as a happy ending despite the fact that neither Quentin nor Fillory have changed, and that the most likely outcome is that, once again, Fillory won't measure up to Quentin's expectations.

The more I think about The Magicians, the more inclined I am to compare it not to Harry Potter or any of a million novels about undergraduate or graduate ennui, but to M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, a novel which is so completely The Magicians's polar opposite that if their authors were ever brought together the universe might cease to exist.  Like The Magicians, The Course of the Heart is the story of people desperate to inject meaning and narrative into their lives, a desire which Harrison treats with furious disdain and, at the same time, terrible sorrow.  Like Grossman, he concludes that a life without magic is empty and meaningless, but that magic isn't sufficient to imbue it with meaning, and though I had nearly as much trouble with this worldview when Harrison expressed it as when Grossman did, I can at least respect Harrison for having the courage of his convictions.  He depicts genuine misery and ugliness as opposed to wealth that isn't quite opulent enough.  His fantasy world is a world of genuine, terrifying wonder, not a sanitized, easily comprehensible children's world with walking trees and talking lions.  Most of all, he has the guts to take his premise to its logical conclusion, to end his story with the misery his world promises, whereas Grossman chickens out at the last minute, and ends on a cowardly, childish note.  The Magicians turns out to be precisely the kind of fantasy Michael Agger mistakes the whole of the genre for in his New York Times review--safe, predictable, something that adults should outgrow.  Far more than Agger's review, it is what's demeaning to the genre. 


Nicholas Tam said…
Thank you for the review. Rationally or not, I was wary of Lev Grossman as a novelist given my very poor opinion of him as a book reviewer for Time, where he peddles in "You are the Person of the Year" geek-chic populism and X-is-the-new-Y trendspotting without any interest in synthesizing big ideas out of the things he likes. He most certainly has read authors like Susanna Clarke, but there's no indication he's read them very well. Your observations about The Magicians don't surprise me in the least.

You may be aware of Grossman's recent mission statement on literature here, where you might get a sense of his attitude to safety and predictability, plus a dash of his typical "This is the future" bag. It baffles me that someone who likes so many of the same books I do could be such a poor advocate.
Kit said…
Wow, that book sounds deeply irritating.

It seems to me that an adult fantasy book with a Narnia should invest its intellectual energy not in noting how much nicer the Narnia is than the real world- after all, who wouldn't prefer to be a ruler of a fantasy country rather than a child in a British boarding school?- but in figuring out how this happy state of affairs has been achieved. Why, for instance, are all the sentient animals in such desperate want of good governance that a twelve year old schoolboy can rule them better than they can rule themselves?

And who does the laundry? Magic gives you some free opulence, but even J. K. Rowling had to posit a species of happy Darkies to perform all that tedious cleaning and food preparation and a species of Jews to perform all that tedious accountancy, so that the wizards could concentrate on wholesome English occupations like retail, education, and the civil service.

Which is all a long way of saying Grossman seems to be aiming at the wrong target- Narnia isn't infantile because of the unalloyed joy of the Pevensies in finding Narnia, it's infantile because there was a Narnia to find. If you want to have a go at it it's Narnia itself you need to target, not the protagonists.
Foxessa said…
Why are people like this book?

But then, I've never been able to read a Narnia novel or even watch a Narnia television series or movie either. Perhaps I didn't come to them young enough. But somehow I don't think that is the reason. For one thing reading Lewis's Perelandra trilogy -- I hated that one too, argued all the way through it with Lewis and his spokes-narrator(s). And did the same with his Allegory of Love, about the evils of courtly love.

Back to Grossman's book -- everything I've read about this thing makes it sound the very thing that will evoke the desire to throw the thing at another thing, to get it out of my sight. And then brush my teeth and use listerine to get the taste out.

I've read the opening chapters, and I gotta say -- more useless users of oxygen than those three kids I haven't seen lately outside of Sex and the City.

Love, C.
Foxessa said…
ooops, forgot -- people are lurving this book because the author's the book 'critic' at time magazine. which is how he doubtless got an excellent advance also. and published by viking rather than DAW. or scholastic.

Love, C.

Yes, I've seen that WSJ article (I think I link to it here). As so many people remarked at the time, it's a mishmash of conflicting ideas, misunderstood concepts, and dubious generalizations. My impression at the time was that what Grossman called plot was actually closer to readability - the famous SFnal transparent prose - which to be honest tracks with what I see in The Magicians. It's not a strongly plotted novel, but it is a very readable one, even as its characters and events become extremely annoying.


There is some attempt to work out Fillory in The Magicians, and at its end it even turns out that much of its plot was driven by shadowy figures from Fillory whose motives are more comprehensible than the talking animals. But like the misery of Quentin's existence, this is something Grossman can't, ultimately, commit to, and one of my greatest difficulties with the novel was, as you say, trying to resolve its supposedly modern, naturalistic approach with this children's book fantasy world.

(I do wonder how much better the novel would have worked if Grossman's invented world had mirrored Harry Potter rather than Narnia. For all her famous problems with worldbuilding, Rowling comes much closer than Lewis to creating a believable world - as you say, the magical darkies and Jews - that real people might move in without becoming any less real.)


I like Narnia, though to be fair it's been years since I read the books, and even as a child I was never the sort of person who imagined going to a fantasy world. But though it's hard to sympathize with people who not only felt that desire but continue to feel it as adults, I can understand it, and I can see how a novel about such people might have been interesting (if, as I say above, a bit familiar). It's Grossman's choice to a) assume the universality of the desire to retreat to a fantasy world, and b) reward it that makes The Magicians utterly pointless.

I don't doubt that Grossman's position as a Time critic has helped raise the book's profile (though The Magicians is his third published book) but I do know people who have genuinely enjoyed the novel, and the fact is that there is much to enjoy here - as I said to Nicholas, it is extremely readable all the way through, and I enjoyed the first half even as I was wondering what the point of it was - just not enough to make a good novel.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the excellent review.
When I first heard about The Magicians, I thought hopefully that it might be touching on similar themes to Harrison's Course of the Heart. From what you say, it sounds like it's complete opposite. In the MJH universe it's possible for two opposing things to be one thing, but in this case I agree with you that if a copy of The magicians were to ever reach MJH's hands, the resulting explosion of sarcastic rage might give us a whole new perspective on global warming.
Kit said…
The Perelandra books are just execrable on every possible level of analysis. Narnia, on the other hand, is quasi-readable if you are ten or if you can turn off those parts of your brain that think about ethics and worldbuilding. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is almost a good book for whole chapters at a time.

I agree Grossman might have done better riffing Harry Potter, but flimsy as Lewis's world-building is, there's a germ of an idea there. There's something fundamentally gross and creepy about adults using children from another world as figureheads in their civil war, and that idea is worth examining.

Ursula le Guin actually does a decent Narnia send up in her The Beginning Place (which I'm not recommending to you, Abigail- not her strongest work), in which we find out that the people in the magical country behind the portal really do need the heroes from our world to save them, but only because it's not the sort of salvation you want to use your own children for.

One of the problems with Phillip Pullman (I know it's at the bottom of your list, but still) is that this is the one idea from Narnia's worldbuilding he doesn't question, so the salvation of the entire mutliverse does in fact absurdly depend on Will and Lyra.

There's something fundamentally gross and creepy about adults using children from another world as figureheads in their civil war, and that idea is worth examining.

True, and it might be interesting to read such a take on the Narnia world, but that is an outlook that leaves out the religious aspect of the books entirely (Lewis, for example, might have said that the war wasn't civil but a war between God and the devil). Of course, so does Grossman - it is quite possibly the strangest aspect of The Magicians that Narnia's Christian allegory is completely scrubbed out of Fillory.
"... and its view of a tiny walled-in dirt patch?"

Unless he had been among the desperate poor—living in a police state, raddled with disease, war and injustice—the only thing keeping Quentin stuck with a tiny walled-in dirt patch was Quentin. This is a thing children know (Julie Edwards' Mandy, The Secret Garden, and many adults of course as well. One can, especially with a garden, "build a heaven in hell's despite."

The which also answers an earlier poster's facetious question of who does the laundry and the cooking? Magic isn't in it at all, unless you mean the magic of a cheerful heart and willing hands that can make what could be daily tedium into some kind of charming homely art (which, come to think of it, is pretty darn magical, human nature being what it is. Maybe that's why they had to be beavers and dwarves) The magic in Narnia is nearly all for fun and music and beauty, the stuff that can keep the daily tedium from grinding down the soul.

No a better question is where the sewing machines came from! World-building was not Mr. Lewis' strong suit... but in fairness to Mr. Lewis, he was writing very good fairy tales, not second-rate science fiction.

Which gets to my quibble with the reviewer: the self-absorbed nihilism (whether fantastical or mundane) is the stuff of teenager-hood, the which we are expected to outgrow for "sterner stuff." Fairy tales are for childhood, and while some people do grow out of them, they tend not to be the better for it. Myself I have no desire to be the kind of grown up who wouldn't want to talk to a living star, take tea with talking beavers, hear the mermaids singing on the steps of Caer Paravel, or watch the trees dancing in the snowy moonlight.
Rose Fox said…
Abigail: I believe Grossman originally put Narnia in his book, and had to change it to Fillory for legal reasons. That may explain some of the odd sanitization.

For me it wasn't the marriage of the children's fantasy story and the college story that failed to work, but the marriage of the sensawunda story with the jaded and bored story, and especially the marriage of the sensawunda story with Quentin and Alice's New Yorker-esque doomed romance. I felt they collided like ice sheets, with a lot of groaning and one eventually being shoved rudely under the other. I have known so many people like Alice and Quentin and their friends--have at times been like them myself--that their post-school narrative rang very true for me, including "cool" Alice hanging out with a bunch of drunken losers (though obviously Grossman was unwilling to show the non-cool parts of Alice well enough to shatter the aura of awesome that he seemed to feel was necessary for her sacrifice to be worth anything), but what Grossman doesn't seem to get is that the post-school narrative for smart kids thrust into the stupid real world rarely ends with either wild escape, glorious success, or mind-numbing drudgery as a fake cog in the machine. Schools for smart kids above all teach them to be impatient with the status quo and to keep seeking more fulfillment and mental stimulation. I never see that impatience in Quentin and his friends, and that's why their story never rings true for me.

What I wanted, I think, was a novelization of Malcolm Gladwell's 2005 article on Hunter College Elementary School graduates and why, despite an average IQ of 157, they don't become real-world superstars. ("After noting the sacrifices involved in trying for national or world-class leadership in a field, HCES graduates decided that the intelligent thing to do was to choose relatively happy and successful lives.") As an HCES and HCHS graduate who went on to drop out of college three times and bum from job to job for most of a decade until stumbling into freelance work as a way to escape funny cultural notions about success and proper comportment, I would have found that story really interesting, though maybe no one else would. Oh well.

By sanitization, do you mean the absence of religion? It seemed fairly obvious to me that Grossman couldn't fit Fillory as a religious allegory into the story he wanted to tell, but in that case I'm not sure how fair it was for him to draw so many overt comparisons to Narnia.

Agreed about the post-school narrative jarring with the sensawunda story. Though again, I feel that a more courageous author might have done something interesting with that mix - for example showing us Quentin and his friends really committing to Fillory instead of tarnishing it with their general dissatisfaction with life. The problem, as I see it, is that the two stories say so comfortably within their own grooves instead of genuinely mixing.
Christopher said…
I have been googling for reviews of The Magicians since I finished at 2:30 a.m. this morning. I posted a review of what I took away from the book on my site.

I like your review as well as what hit me was how much of me I saw in Quentin (something I did not like to admit). What struck me as anti-Narnia and somewhat bold was the unhappy ending. Sure Quentin seems content on returning to Fillory, but Alice is gone, he has not had a meaningful relationship since her self-sacrifice and is still suffering some form of PTSD.

That being said, perhaps if he had drank less, trained more for the journey into Fillory, and kept his fox in the hole when it came to Jane, he would not have lost what was obviously so important to him in the end: Alice.

Of course I am a hopeless romantic and the Quentin/Alice storyline was what kept me up way past my bedtime.

On another note I really am glad that I stubmled upon your site and have added it to my links (however I am having some difficulty getting my links to appear on the theme I am using). Keep up the good work.
rreugen said…
Great review.
Awful book.

It really was boring. The only amusing thing was how we're told from the beginning that the protagonist is very smart, but very, very smart, and he gets to be in the company of other kids who are smarter, and he gets along there, because, as we know, he is so very smart - and all the while Quentin doesn't do one single smart thing.
Anonymous said…
I just recently finished this book, and I REALLY can't stop thinking about the women mentioned on the last pages (the one who came with Janet and Elliot when they 'visited' Q's work). I got this feeling she might be some sort or ressurected Alice...
Anonymous said…

i downloaded the audiobook and am at book 1 part 3 and NOTHING substantial has happened yet. Now that i know the rest of the book doesn't hold up, I don't have to waste over 544 minutes of my life.
Anonymous said…
... having already listened for over 467 minutes
Anonymous said…
Hmmm... I find your review to be below the mark. Obviously you didn't get the point as it soared over your head.
Anonymous said…
"Below the mark"? Hi, Lev, nice to see you're following your own reviews so closely.
scamel from the rocks said…
I just wanted to thank you for this review. It did exactly what a good review should: laid bare for me some of the mechanics of the book's operation in a direction I would not otherwise have considered. I started with the desire to find out if _The Magicians_ was likely to overcome or acknowledge its own privilege and sexism, and your review, among others, helped me figure out that a) no, it won't and b) I don't really need to finish it. So thanks!
vivian said…
I really liked The Magicians, myself. I saw it as a deconstruction of The Narnia Chronicles, a demonstration of what would really happen if you gave immature people magical power and put them in a magical land like Narnia. The ending did piss me off though.
Anonymous said…
i just finishing read a book and i want to express regert because of the deth of alice.. i still a hope that she comes alive and all ends happily... otherwise it's a good book... (btw sorry for my English)
Anonymous said…
Maybe I should start with the sequel.
Anonymous said…
Hmm, I actually really loved this book. Though it doesn't have much in the way of plot, no - you sort of get the message of "the sort of person who can't find meaning in the real world won't find it in a fantasy world either" on about page five, and the rest of the book pretty much does nothing but demonstrate beyond all possible doubt. But as you say, it is very readable and you enjoy seeing the characters be themselves even if they have no major surprises in store.

I feel like every star-struck fan I have ever winced at here ("no, this book isn't shoddily written! It's got an UNRELIABLE NARRATOR! All the things you think are flaws are intentional, honest!"), but... to me it felt pretty obvious that we were never supposed to think that Quentin's contempt for real life (and to a lesser extent the other characters') was justified. Doesn't someone say straight out at one point that magicians never manages to grow up - that they might even become magicians because they refuse to grow up?

I didn't feel like we were supposed to take Janet's angsty-teenager complaint to Ember seriously in the sense of thinking that she's making some sort of profound point, though we are supposed to recognise it as heartfelt. I got the feeling that he starts out spouting the sort of high-minded stuff you'd expect from an ersatz-Aslan, and she cuts him off by telling him how phony and unsatisfying it is - and he snaps a little and basically tells her, "yeah, well, tough. I'm not putting on an act for you, all this pompous wisdom is what I'm really like. And if it's not good enough for you, why did you come looking for it?"

As such, I didn't see the ending as all that happy. The best thing you can say about it is that Quentin is trying to live again, which is a step, but no more than that. I understand that there is a sequel - possibly he continues trying to stop sucking in that one?
ibmiller said…
The sequel has Quentin sort of not sucking more, but the parallel narrative about Julia is so much worse than Alice's story. Incredibly horrific.
Anonymous said…
Okay! I read the sequel.

It does look like Quentin is slowly (sloooooooowly...) continuing to grow up. He's still Quentin, of course. He still whines about how his comfortable life is devoid of purpose, and then whines even more when he loses his comforts and has to go through some purposeful hardship. He still looks for easy fixes and excuses to avoid unpleasant things. He's still a bit of an idiot.

But he really does seem to be learning, from what he went through in The Magicians and from what he continues to go through in The Magician King. To be grateful for what he has, whatever it is he has at the moment. To care for others and try to give them what they need, even when that's not what he wants to give them. To at least think a little before he makes a rash decision. At the end of the book, I actually found myself liking Quentin for the first time. The kid will be all right yet. :)

Though yes, the Julia thing was... nightmarish.
JM said…
I'm late to the party on this one, but thank you for the review. This thing was deeply irritating and I am so relieved to know I'm not the only one. I've never read "The Course of the Heart" but if it's good, at least I'll have gotten something enjoyable out of the magicians
jazza said…
This review is uncharitable.

It seems your contempt for the unreliable narrator, a self-hating man-child without emotional intelligence clouded your judgement. Consider the premise: Magic is only accessible to super geniuses. Most geniuses are maladapted and poorly socialised. Magic makes wealth and opulence stupidly easy to obtain. Magic is very poorly regulated. Think about this mix of factors for a second. What kind of person does this environment create?

Then add excellent world building that follows all the logical extension of this premise. Then realise that the main theme of the trilogy is that magic is an infantilising escapist crutch. The target audience is people who enjoy escapist power fantasies. This kind of person resonates with the nihilistic ennui.

Also, the crux of the trilogy is the arc of Quentin's character development in which he becomes a decent well rounded human being despite magic, not because of it.

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