The Magicians by Lev Grossman – review

The Magicians by Lev Grossman cover

The Magicians by Lev Grossman tells the tale of Quentin, a genius level high school student who is wondering what to do with his life when he receives an invitation to sit an entrance exam to a very exclusive school. Given his secret obsession with a children’s fantasy book series (Fillory) and his general lack of direction, he is very pleased to find that the school in question is for people who can do magic.

This is a very engaging book, I found myself pulled through it and devoured it in a few days. The premise was strong and I enjoyed the style of the writing, the use of language and the grittier reality of what life might be like for people with magical powers in the modern world.

Fair warning – if you aren’t a fan of sex, drugs, swearing and generally bad behaviour, this probably isn’t the book for you. Imagine if you had magical powers, you couldn’t reveal those powers and there were no magical threats in the real world. Seems that most magicians in Grossman’s world, rather than trying to solve world poverty or anything, twist their talents towards a hard core partying lifestyle once out of school.

The fact that magic required painstaking training, intelligence, creativity and hard work to master was a relief. I’ve said before that sometimes the sense that characters go into the woods with a wise mentor, have a very quick training montage and are suddenly the absolute masters of their craft (all within a couple of weeks) can really throw me out of a story. The magic in The Magicians required tedious repetition and close study over the course of years – and was more engaging for all that.

It was a strong ensemble of characters, although I must admit by the end of the novel I was starting to wonder if the main character, Quentin, was ever going to a) be happy or 2) step up. While the novel was a lot more grown up, the main characters were still, for all intents, mopey teenagers (although by the end they were well into their twenties and one could be forgiven for saying “get over yourselves”). From that perspective, it will be interesting to see what Grossman does with the sequel.

The novel was very aware of the fantasy genre, with references to Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Narnia. For all that, I don’t think it would necessarily appeal to people who liked fantasy primarily aimed at a younger adult (e.g. Potter) – this is a much darker story with less likeable characters. I preferred it for that reason, but I can see how others might not.

I always struggle with “meta” concepts in these kinds of novels – I’m sure there was deep commentary on the nature of modern fandom, the cartoon style approach to violence in many fantasy novels, the reality of what power does to the human psyche etc. You might have to read another review to get more details on that side of the novel though – my powers of critical commentary don’t quite stretch so far as to have strong opinions there.

This book has been reviewed umpteen times and I doubt I’m going to add anything original to the discussion. So I’ll just end by saying highly recommended, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.


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This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

Author: mark

A writer of speculative fiction and all round good egg. Well, mostly good.

OK, sometimes good.

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