The Magicians by Lev Grossman

PENMagicians500.jpgFiction — audiobook. Read by Mark Bramhall. Penguin Audio, 2009. 17 hours, 21 minutes. Library copy.

Quentin Coldwater, a senior in high school and a certified genius, is still secretly obsessed with a series of children’s fantasy novels about the adventures of five siblings in a magical land called Fillory. Quentin knows that magic and Fillory are not real – that is, until he unexpectedly finds himself admitted to a secret, exclusive college of magic in upstate New York called Brakebills. Magic does not bring Quentin the happiness, adventure, or fulfillment he expected and he wanders adrift in the world after graduation until one night he and his friends unexpectedly discover that Fillory is real.

Have I ever hated a character as much as I hate Quentin? He is introduced as the quintessential “nice guy” who is in love with his best friend’s girlfriend, Julia, disparages her for not loving him instead , and fantasizes about the death of his friend because, obviously, then  Julia would realize she should be with a “nice guy” like him. The kind of guy you should stay far, far away from. And my frustration with Quentin continued to grow as the story progressed, as Quentin allowed himself to float in a sea of drugs and alcohol and boredom because he finds magic “unfulfilling” and needs to cheat on his girlfriend to feel anything. He is, to paraphrase his girlfriend, Alice, the “asshole who goes to Fillory and has a miserable time”, and I only tolerated listening about him for more than seventeen hours because of my interest in the world Grossman created.

I told myself I would stay away from comparing Grossman’s novel to the Harry Potter series or the Chronicles of Narnia, but Grossman makes his own comparisons within the text so I’m taking it as permission to do so. The characters play a game at Brakebill they themselves compare to Quidditch saying it is not nearly as interesting or cool, which I would agree with, and Fillory is so obviously Narnia with its magical portals, the family of children who are the only ones to visit, the designation of said children as the kings and queens of the land, and talking animals.

But Grossman focuses on two dark aspect of magic: (1) the construction of magic as a savior in the eyes of children and (2) the seizure of magic by evil forces. This is achieved by showing that young adults who graduate from magic college are no different from those who graduate from a regular college and dismantling their childhood dreams of magic through an excursion to the real Fillory where one of the children written about in the Fillory novels now refuses to leave. A refusal that takes shape as a demonic, murderous temper tantrum.

Certainly, Rowling and Lewis focused a great deal of their stories on the seizure of magic by evil forces, but Grossman takes an even darker turn focusing on the disillusionment young adults feel as they transition from college to adulthood. Thus, his novel lacks the undercurrent of hope that is found in the wizarding world of Harry Potter or in Narnia and makes for a wholly depressing read with characters I cannot root for. My reaction towards reading it reminded a bit of my reaction towards watching the HBO drama “Girls”: if I wanted to hear about twenty-somethings who cannot get their lives together, all I need to do is gather my friends and look in the mirror.

The only enjoyable aspect of this novel is Alice refusing to put up with Quentin’s shit and the narration by Mark Bramhall. At least Bramhall tried to inject some measure of emotion into Quentin’s incessant, dourer whining.

Others’ Thoughts:


    • There’s such a wide range of responses to the book that I can understand the curiosity. And, occasionally, books that receive so many negative reviews are the ones I want to read the most because they can’t really be that bad, can they?


  1. Kim

    I am feeling exactly the same way about Quentin. He’s horribly unlikelable. I was wondering if that was a conscious choice by Grossman, and he’d have some sort of redemption later on, (I’m 2/3rds through the first book) but having read your take, I’m not optimistic.

    Grossman said the books are partially bio-graphical, so maybe he doesn’t even realise what a jerk Quentin is.


    • Oh, geez, I hadn’t heard that the books are partially biographical and I hope his personality doesn’t match that of Quentin because the guy is horribly unlikeable, as you said. But being unable to realize what a jerk Quentin is could help explain why he never changes in the novel.


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