This is a book that has been on my radar for a couple of years. Actually, ever since I noticed a friend reading it. I've known this friend for over 15 years, so I trust his opinion and he was pretty enthusiastic about The Magicians. When Penguin contacted me about possibly reading The Magicians and The Magician King, I checked back with that friend, who was just as enthusiastic and had pre-ordered the second book. That was good enough for me, and off I went to email Penguin with a "yes, please".
The Premise: Quentin Coldwater is a mopey but brilliant seventeen year old, preparing to enter some Ivy League school and already a little depressed by how predictable his prosperous life is going to be. To escape, he obsesses over a series of children's books, Fillory and Further, about five British children who cross over to a magical world called Fillory. Then one day, Quentin crosses over himself - but not to Fillory. Instead he is on the grounds of Brakebills College of Magical Pedagogy, somewhere in upstate New York. So begins Quentin's new life - one in which magic exists.
Read an excerpt of The Magicians here
My Thoughts: Quentin is a teen-aged "ridiculously brilliant" overachiever with a melancholy air, who lives in Brooklyn with his parents. His life seems set until an incident at a college interview derails him from his expected path and sends him wandering into the grounds of a school for magic, where Quentin is one of twenty students selected for the new freshman class. Suddenly, delightfully, everything Quentin knew has been turned on its head. Magic is real, but it's also extremely difficult to do - requiring not only talent but the right circumstances and tedious repetitive study. But obsessive Quentin, a person who enjoys practicing a thing until he has a perfect grasp of it, and who rereads his favorite series of books, Fillory and Further every chance he gets, it is the perfect fit. So too are the other students, just as smart as Quentin and just as dissatisfied, if not more, by the world they inhabit. Magic seems like just the right thing for these kids. Quentin finds himself happy for the first time in his life, and easily leaves his parents and old friends behind to spend as much time as Brakebills as possible.
The first 200 pages are a sugar high of the strange and unexpected, taking us through a series of vignettes that highlight the years at Brakebills. It was a lot of fun living vicariously through Quentin's experiences - from the exam that he passes to get into school to the semester in fourth year that involves a never-talked-about rite of passage. This went by at a happy reading clip, but there are glimpses of a dark underbelly throughout the first pages, like a disturbing death at the school and ominous comments about whether humans were ever supposed to know magic. Then I hit the midway point of the book, which is the start of Book II - after graduation from Brakebills. The sense of wonder and amusement that Quentin had becoming acquainted with Brakebills seems sucked away by the idea of trying to find a goal in life, and Quentin returns to that aimless unhappy state again. He and his friends have it all - youth, endless money, magic, and no responsibilities, but for the most part they act like over-privileged, miserable, jackasses. I felt a cold lump of disappointment in the characters, and I wasn't sure I could continue. And I remembered that my friend's favorite Harry Potter was my least favorite, because of the angst (Order of the Phoenix by the way). But a new distraction appears - the existence of Fillory and the possibility of actually getting to it. The second half of the book brings the story back up from its downward trajectory, but with the reader and Quentin both wiser about the flaws in his character and the real danger of magic.
Throughout the book, the writing is absorbing. Even when things were dismal, they were dismal because the story had me so involved in the characters. And the story has the habit of taking unexpected little detours along the way to telling the whole story that I was always entertained. Many of these turned out to be important later on, but a lot of it seemed like the strange detail that makes up the world of magic. And what's also fun about it is how much of the story references other books. Since this is a story in which a unhappy boy stumbles into a world that coexists with ours, but has real magic, Harry Potter is the first place the mind goes, which probably explains the "Harry Potter with college students" one-line summary, but that's the most obvious comparision. I saw more allusions to the Narnia series than Harry Potter, but it seems to nod at a lot of classic children's fantasy books. Besides Narnia, I thought I saw whiffs of Alice In Wonderland, The Once And Future King, and Peter Pan, and I'm sure, many more. But this is not really a children's book - it takes the warm memories of childhood that those books represent and then wipes away the innocence.
The Magicians is marketed under "fiction" but I think it crosses genre boundaries. It could be considered contemporary or urban fantasy, but with a literary, non-escapist feel. Sometimes I felt like it could be a candidate for the Horror shelves. I wouldn't call it young adult (although Quentin is seventeen when the story begins), or New Adult Literature (although it spans Quentin's years at college). The portrayal of human nature in this tale makes it feel more "adult".
Overall: This is a tough one. I've been telling everyone my personal reaction, which was: blown away by the beginning, dismayed by the middle, and a mixture of those two by the end, but I think The Magicians is a book where I'd find it hard to call who is going to like it and who won't. I think most people will find this book really well-written and unique, and if you are a reader who enjoyed books where a child protagonist discovered real magic when you were growing up, you'll appreciate all the allusions The Magicians makes to those stories. But! Along with the sense of wonder and amusement, there is also a very dark undertow, and this is not a comforting read.
P.S. Since Brakebills is mentioned as being on the Hudson, somewhere in the Poughkeepsie-West Point area (an area I know), I've been obsessing over its exact (theoretical) location this past week.
Buy: Amazon | Powell's | The Book Depository
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A Brief Guide to the Hidden Allusions in The Magicians by Lev Grossman