Book Review: The Magicians

I just finished Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.  Wow, this one was depressing.  The content was depressing, but I was also depressed because I kept on waiting for the payoff for slogging through this, and it never came.  I had heard a rave review of it on NPR, and at least one blogger I read loved it.  (Sorry, can’t find the link — feel free to speak up to defend it.)

Cory Doctorow liked it, and says that it’s a book of wonder without awe or sentimentality.  I guess that’s right.  It’s a scathing revisionist take on both Harry Potter and the Narnia books, (with some random references to The Once and Future King, and Dungeons and Dragons) imaging a magical school that is tedious and incomprehensible, and a journey through fantasy where people react realistically to being under attack for no obvious reason.   Oh, and the characters drink and curse and have sex.  The main character is miserable in his pre-magic life, miserable at school, and miserable when he gets to live out his fantasy.  The epigram to the book is Prospero breaking his wand, but it should have been Hamlet’s “there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so.”  I wanted to give him a kick in the pants for much of the book.

There were also major plot holes that irritated me.  Why have the two main characters randomly promoted a year at  school other than that the author had decided to make school last 5 years rather than 4, but were too lazy to come up with material to fill another year?  Why spend a huge chunk of time telling how the main character survived naked in Antartica, and then have the characters obsess about whether to bring their parkas to Narnia/Fillory?

5 Responses to “Book Review: The Magicians”

  1. Jennifer Says:

    Hm. There are plenty of fantasy books in which the characters are as complex as real people, and in which the “big bad villain” is oneself. The works of Ursula LeGuin and Molly Gloss come to mind. You might try “The Wild Life” sometime.

  2. Sandy D. Says:

    Totally agree with you – I just finished it, too. One of my friends loved it, and the other hated it – so I was curious about how I’d like it.
    I didn’t hate it and think it was all depressing – there were too many clever parts, too much really interesting writing, too many parts where I said “ooh, he hit the nail on the head there” while reading. However, the story didn’t sweep me up; I was too busy disliking the characters. And the parents – could you have more unlikable parents in a book? (Apart from “The Willoughbys”, anyway).
    Ironically, I came to the conclusion that what “The Magicians” really lacked was a certain “magic” that better fantasy manages to have (even really flawed fantasy books, and I’ve read plenty of those).

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  4. zinemama Says:

    I’m with Jennifer. Ursula le Guin did the school for wizards scenario way before Rowling and way better (A Wizard of Earthsea). You can’t even mention the two in the same sentence, really.
    Has anyone read The Magician’s Book: A Skeptics Adventures in Narnia? After wising up to what Lewis was really on about in the books she loved as a kid, the author, Laura Miller, swore them off. But once a Narnian, always a Narnian. The Magician’s Book revisits the series and their author.

  5. Allison Says:

    So, late to the party, but I wanted to read your review before responding to it. I should preface this by saying that Lev Grossman is an old pal of my husband’s so we went into this book with artificially positive expectations. Also, SPOILERS AHEAD>

    However, I really enjoyed it although I completely get why you would not. The narrator’s a depressive schmuck. The plot takes some weird lurches in the middle – although I think the point of them skipping a “grade” and then being the only two to pass the Antarctic Test is to emphasize that they’re the two strongest magicians by far and thus the others should not be expected to live up to their powers. Hence the coat dilemma (the pair might be fine but the rest will freeze!)

    Also, as you know, one of my frequent gripes about books is that the plots are too “book-shaped.” I liked the unpredictability of the plot and the fact that it did not follow a typical (and therefore, predictable) arc.

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