This book has caught my eye a few times at the book store, mainly because of the relation to its title and where it's shelved: the book is called The Magicians, but everywhere I go, it's shelved in the General Fiction section. Uh, wut? So I read the summary and it's still very contemporary fantasy and is very obviously some kind of homage to Harry Potter (people from the real world going to school for magic), which caught my interest, but never enough to actually pick it up. Then, a few months ago, the book store got was selling it on sale for $7.99 for the hardcover AND I get a 30% employee discount, so I thought "Why not?" and picked it up. I decided to read it this month because the sequel, The Magician King came out recently and I wanted to see if it was worth picking up.
Overall, my thoughts on this book are a little torn. There are some aspects I liked quite a bit, and others that I wasn't too keen on. There will be spoilers behind the cut, so if you plan on reading this, just skip to the Final Verdict section at the end of the review.
I think I'm going to try to divvy up this review in two-parts: my thoughts on the first half of the novel, when Quentin is attending Brakebills, and the second half of the novel, when Quentin has his hedonistic stint in Manhattan, and when him and his group of friends are in Fillory. Both sections felt very different (maybe not in style, but definitely in content and atmosphere) and I actually ending up liking the second half quite a bit more than the first.
The first half of the novel, like I said above, chronicles Quentin's years at Brakebills, a university for geniuses to be trained as magicians. This first half, for obvious reasons, feels very much like reading Harry Potter, but instead of the students being middle-grade/high school aged students, they're post-secondary instead. The author is clearly aware that he's writing something ridiculously similar to the HP franchise and he makes references to Harry Potter quite often (random mentions of quidditch and even the books themselves are peppered here and there). Where the line between "paying homage to", "borrowing" and "ripping off" were a little blurry for me here. I mean, yeah, by making reference to the series he's imitating/borrowing it comes across more as an homage, but he's using *such* a similar premise that it really borderlines on "ripping off" just a tad. Earlier this month, I read When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. Her novel was clearly an homage to the classic A Wrinkle in Time and she did borrow elements from that novel, but the book's premise was still very much its own. I found this novel didn't accomplish this quite as well.
Maybe I feel this way because I found this first half of the novel boring. Yeah, it takes the premise of a wizarding school from Harry Potter, which was AWESOME, but here, it fell kind of flat. There was so much wonder at Hogwarts, and it was such a distinct and well realized setting that it was almost a character in and of itself. Of course, it had seven books to accomplish this whereas The Magicians only features its wizarding school in one volume and for half of it besides. But I don't know.. I was enthralled with Hogwarts from the start with the moving staircases and the paintings that were seemingly alive. Brakebills didn't have that magic, and as such, a lot of the first half was kind of boring. There were some neat bits, like when the Fourth Years go to the Antarctic for a semester, or the chapter where The Beast showed up (which was *really* creepy actually), but for me, it was nothing to write home about.
All the characters are introduced in the first half too, and overall, I wasn't too fond of anybody. The only person who didn't bug me very much was Alice: she was hard-working and very sharp and called people on their bullshit. Quentin, the main character, drove me kind of crazy with his "I'm-never-happy-boo-hoo" routine. He's a privileged kid, and though his parents may be a little negligent, they're never downright mean or treat him badly. It wouldn't be so bad if Quentin just had some form of depression (which I have, so I could have empathized with him), but it's really just that there's no pleasing him -- even when he gets what he wants, he finds some other reason to feel unfulfilled and unhappy. To character I disliked the most though was Janet. She was just... ew. Nothing but a shit-stirrer who likes making other people unhappy. How am I supposed to like that? As for the other characters, everyone was just kind of there, and while they had personality, they didn't do a whole lot else.
The second half of the novel takes place in Manhattan for a little bit, after Quentin and his group of friends graduate from Brakebills. There, they all do nothing but drink, do drugs and sleep together (graduates from Brakebills never need to get any REAL jobs because there's some kind of bank where they pull some strings once in awhile and essentially have an infinite supply of free money.) In this section, there's some exploration as to what would happen with *real* people if they had magic: which apparently is a whole lot of NOTHING, according to Lev Grossman. Part of what this novel tried to do was add a gritty, real-world feel to popular fantasy, and it's explored a little bit in the first half (with Alice's family) and a lot more here as well. I appreciated that Grossman took this angle to the fantasy genre, and it was all a little meta actually (which I guess is why this title is considered literary fiction? or literary fantasy, whatever) which interesting, even though it wasn't totally engrossing.
After Manhattan, the group discovers that they can travel to the world of Fillory, which is mentioned several times throughout the novel as its the world in which a bunch of fantasy novels that Quentin loves are set in (of course, this is a Narnia homage, but I don't think I need to tell you guys that). Quentin, forever wanting to live in a fantasy world (he's satiated by Brakebills for awhile, but it doesn't last because he's a stupid arse who can never just be happy) is ecstatic to discover that the place is real. Even though it takes a little while for the Fillory adventure to begin, this was probably my favorite part of the novel. The characters act how I imagine real people would act in a similar situation. People try to assume leadership, people chicken out, no one's *really* sure what to do, etc etc. The last couple of chapters that take place in the tomb were kind of freaky actually, especially at the end when they all come face-to-face with The Beast again. That whole fight with that thing was legitimately kind of scary. Of course, the only good character has to die from that encounter (Alice).
There were also some revelations at the end of the story that were pleasantly surprising, such as the nurse being the villain from the Fillory novels (even though she isn't really a villain, even though she's done some not-so-nice things) and the whole reveal that Quentin and his friends have been through some of the same events several times without their ever knowing it. It was a weird revelation, but I liked it for some reason.
The very, very end of the novel was all very meh, and the final couple of pages when Quentin decides to return to Fillory had me shrugging and not caring too much. At that point, I was so sick of Quentin and his mopeyness that I didn't care what happened to him anymore. He obviously experienced some growth throughout the course of the novel, but in the end, of course he couldn't be happy or try to find meaning in something and do something productive with his life.
Final Verdict: I'm still not completely sure how I feel about this novel. The first half was kind of boring, and while it was an obvious homage to Harry Potter, it lacked the magic that made those books some of all-time favorites and ultimately the whole first half was a little boring for me. The second half though was much more exciting, and had some rather neat reveals at the end of the story.
I think I also could have liked this novel a lot more had I cared more for the characters. They were all kind of assholes, with the exception of Alice. Quentin, the main character, drove me crazy with his constant whining for always wanting more, more, more and whenever he got what he wanted (Brakebills, magic being real, etc etc.) he always found a reason to be dissatisfied with it and unhappy again. Sorry, but I have a hard time feeling sorry for privileged people because they're never happy with what they're given.
I do appreciate Grossman's more edgy take on fantasy though. He's taking staples of children's fantasy, such as Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia and incorporating a gritty and realistic edge to them.
I am a little interested in reading The Magician King, but I'm no rush to get into it either. So I guess we'll see. :)