Fiction Review: The Magicians


I first read Lev Grossman's The Magicians when it first came out. I've been on a bit of an urban fantasy kick lately and have begun watching the Syfy series based upon it. I just finished a reread.

Looking at sites like Goodreads and Amazon one discovers opinions on The Magicians are extremely varied. I'm definitely one of the people who greatly enjoyed it but definitely be aware there are people who hate it just as much...

The Magicians takes us through several years of Quentin Coldwater's life. We are introduced to him as a 17-year old high school senior in Brooklyn. He is a super-genius, heading for a likely Ivy League education. He's never particularly happy for long - the television series has him formally diagnosed with depression and having seen enough of it in my life I would agree with that diagnosis. He is a great fan of the "Fillory" series of novels - 1930s novels about a group of British children who find their way into the magical realm of Fillory. These are an obvious and unapologetic expy for CS Lewis' Narnia novels.

Early in the novel, Quentin passes a surprise entrance examination from Brakebills College  for Magical Pedagogy. One of his friends from Brooklyn, Julia, whom he has a crush on, also takes the exam but fails. Those who fail have their memory of the exam wiped and replaced with a convincing alibi. Those students from non-magical family, are given plausible covers, backed by magic, that they are attending an obscure but prestigious college.

Brakebills is a five-year program, with each class made up of twenty students. It is the only such program in North America, though there are others on other continents. Over the course of the novel, Quentin becomes overjoyed that magic is real and he can do it and makes friends at the college and falls in love. However his joy doesn't last - he always becomes discontented. His life after graduation is a bit of a disaster of drinking, drug-use, and partying with other magicians. At the worst point in his life he discovers Fillory is real and is able to travel there.

However, even Fillory doesn't make Quentin happy. The overall theme of the book is Quentin keeps waiting for something to make him happy - but nothing ever will, for the barrier to his happiness is himself. The book itself never discusses depression aside from the dean of Brakebills suggesting he consider therapy, but I think a convincing case could be made for Quentin suffering from some pretty bad depression. Quentin arrives in Fillory and comes to see he's not the heroic figure he always imagined himself as - he's the person who could waste his life, betray his girlfriend, and make mistakes that get people killed.

Probably as a result of me being much like Quentin, longing for Narnia or the chance to be a Jedi Knight, the novel really spoke to me. The discontentment he often felt reminded me of myself in college - if only something would make me happy. If I could get a girlfriend, get good grades, get a good job, have something wonderful happen to me that would change everything...

The magical world presented is both wonderful and dark. More than one character opines that magicians get their power from their unhappiness, their discontentment with reality as it is. But what does a magician do after graduation? Whatever they want - but often it sends them plunging into unhappiness as they can't figure out what it is they want and they look in vain for meaning in their lives. Quentin's girlfriend's parents are magicians and are utterly miserable. However, there are other moments filled with joy, learning they can reshape reality. But it is dangerous - a magical prank leads to the death of one character in Quentin's first year and we learn of a tragic relationship which led to the apparent death of one student, another resigning, and a professor leaving the campus.

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