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'The Magicians' is a fantasy novel by Lev Grossman. This was another book I came across at my student book stall and I was drawn to it merely by its blurb (which is actually very vague in retrospect) - a young man being given an invitation to 'a secret world of obsession and privilege'. But is this book a magical read? Not quite.
Quentin Coldwater is a young but dissatisfied genius who heads to an entrance interview to Princeton. Instead he stumbles upon the dead body of his interviewer. However it turns out the interviewer had an envelope bearing Quentin's name on his personnel, which turns out to be an invitation to the elite school of Brakebills in Uptown New York. Brakebills isn't an ordinary school though- it's like a university of magic, one of many such institutions in the world.
Quentin's admission into Brakebills looks to finally give him the satisfaction that he has been missing in his life so far, as he learns to master something that only the gifted few get to know about. Yet after graduations, he and his friends are struggle to settle down in the real world. Their answer to adventure may be in a fantasy world from their childhood, the land of Fillory, that turns out to be more than just fiction...
'The Magicians' for me was a mixed bag, but I'll start with the positives. The concept of magic is one that has of course been done to death but I think Grossman delivers his take well. Brakebills is like a university of magic where prospective students are 'Invited' rather than openly apply for a place, hence why it is magically hidden from the surrounding area. There is a lot of detail given about its location, history and its workings that makes it accessible and much more interesting than the mundane events of reality. The narrative is good with really vivid descriptions of magic and other fantasy elements present here, plus it carried a lot of humour through Quentin's take on things. Equally important here is the world of Fillory, a fictional, Narnia-like fantasy land where a series of books by one Christopher Plover takes place. At first this just seems to be an obsession of Quentin's but it soon manifests into a very important plot piece and it results in a very engaging climax.
However the concept of Fillory is also one I find lets down this book. Firstly, what drew me to this book was the students learning magic at Brakebills, but this takes only half the book. 'The Magicians' is split into four "books" and books 2-4 focuses on the misadventures of the now-bored and wealthy graduates living in the real world. Book 2 is by far the worst part of the book, focusing more on the drama and empty lives of the former students like it's an American teen drama- I didn't feel endeared to any of the character's actions and I just wish Grossman had spent a bit more time detailing their studies at Brakebills, especially since some of the important plot threads introduced at the start of the book are ignored right until the end. Therefore the middle just seems to be filler for the much more exciting third act, and even their wanderings in Fillory seem to be somewhat disconnected from Book 1.
Furthermore, the characterization, in my opinion, is very unbalanced. Most people only consist of one or two character traits that define them. Some, like Quentin's friends Alice and Eliot, do have interesting backstories and I enjoyed learning more about them or seeing Quentin's perceptions of them change throughout the story, but overall nobody really develops enough for me to like them a lot. Quentin himself to me is a very baffling main character. I do get the impression he's intelligent, well-rounded (compared to his peers anyway) and desperate for meaning to his life (both before and after graduating as a magician) which is the main philosophy behind the story's plot. However he has very frequent personality swings between being somewhat submissive to his peers to being aggressive and angry, which get worse as the story progresses even though he's meant to be getting older and therefore more mature. By the end of the novel I didn't get the impression he acted any wiser in his mid-twenties than how old he was at the start of the book (17/18).
I did enjoy reading 'The Magicians' because it had an intelligent premise and a solid narrative, but it was let down somewhat by underdeveloped characters and a story that meanders between general fiction and high fantasy when it should be wholly focused on the latter. Grossman has written a sequel, 'The Magician King', which came out last year, but I probably won't actively search for it in the bookstores. This was an okay read, but I wanted it to be so much better.
(Also on Ciao under the Anti_W).