August 13, 2018
Issue 9 2018
Booked in

Lev Grossman, The Magicians

A couple years ago I watched the first season of The Magicians, based on Lev Grossman’s novel of the same name. It was entertaining, but otherwise average, so I had middling expectations for the book. However, the similarities between show and book are vague at best. I prefer the book.

Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant student on the cusp of graduating high school, is obsessed with the Fillory and Further books (aka Narnia). Bleakly anticipating the slog of oncoming adulthood, Quentin wants nothing more than to escape to the magical, if fictional, world of Fillory. Instead, he stumbles into Brakebills, a highly competitive university for magic. For better or worse, Quentin’s new life begins.

The New York Times’ review referred to The Magicians as “Harry Potter for adults,” and I fully blame this label for the less-than-stellar public reception (despite positive critical reception) of a perfectly brilliant novel. Most of the negative reviews I’ve read are basically: “What! It’s not Harry Potter? I feel outraged and betrayed because my tastes are linear therefore this book is terrible!”

I feel it’s my duty to state, right here and now, that The Magicians is not, in fact, Harry Potter feat. sex, swearing, and alcohol. The similarities end at “boy discovers magic is real and goes to magic school”. Quentin Coldwater is not Harry Potter. Where Harry is brave and virtuous, Quentin is self-pitying, self-absorbed, and constantly laments his own misery, unable to be happy even when he gets exactly what he wants—magic. It’s actually a good lesson for those of us who never got our Hogwarts letters. Quentin isn’t likeable because he’s good, but because he’s human. Plus, if you’re reading this, you’re most likely a uni student. Through such a lens, plenty of Quentin’s struggles are familiar, as are many of his classmates.

Despite Grossman’s evident skill and creativity with the written word, he spends many a page on perambulatory introspection, which I could understand getting fed up with. It’s not something I mind, myself, but even so: The Magicians is not a quick read. The pacing is a bit odd, too, but sheer hilarity more than makes up for it—dry, sarcastic, unexpected quips and absurdities which legitimately made me laugh out loud. Oh, and the foreshadowing! I often complain about obvious foreshadowing, but The Magicians presented me with a particular incident, foreshadowed so skilfully I didn’t even realise it had been foreshadowed until a couple hours later.

Something The Magicians really does have in common with Harry Potter, I suppose, is that the book is better than the movie—or, in this case, TV show.

A couple years ago I watched the first season of The Magicians, based on Lev Grossman’s novel of the same name. It was entertaining, but otherwise average, so I had middling expectations for the book. However, the similarities between show and book are vague at best. I prefer the book.

Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant student on the cusp of graduating high school, is obsessed with the Fillory and Further books (aka Narnia). Bleakly anticipating the slog of oncoming adulthood, Quentin wants nothing more than to escape to the magical, if fictional, world of Fillory. Instead, he stumbles into Brakebills, a highly competitive university for magic. For better or worse, Quentin’s new life begins.

The New York Times’ review referred to The Magicians as “Harry Potter for adults,” and I fully blame this label for the less-than-stellar public reception (despite positive critical reception) of a perfectly brilliant novel. Most of the negative reviews I’ve read are basically: “What! It’s not Harry Potter? I feel outraged and betrayed because my tastes are linear therefore this book is terrible!”

I feel it’s my duty to state, right here and now, that The Magicians is not, in fact, Harry Potter feat. sex, swearing, and alcohol. The similarities end at “boy discovers magic is real and goes to magic school”. Quentin Coldwater is not Harry Potter. Where Harry is brave and virtuous, Quentin is self-pitying, self-absorbed, and constantly laments his own misery, unable to be happy even when he gets exactly what he wants—magic. It’s actually a good lesson for those of us who never got our Hogwarts letters. Quentin isn’t likeable because he’s good, but because he’s human. Plus, if you’re reading this, you’re most likely a uni student. Through such a lens, plenty of Quentin’s struggles are familiar, as are many of his classmates.

Despite Grossman’s evident skill and creativity with the written word, he spends many a page on perambulatory introspection, which I could understand getting fed up with. It’s not something I mind, myself, but even so: The Magicians is not a quick read. The pacing is a bit odd, too, but sheer hilarity more than makes up for it—dry, sarcastic, unexpected quips and absurdities which legitimately made me laugh out loud. Oh, and the foreshadowing! I often complain about obvious foreshadowing, but The Magicians presented me with a particular incident, foreshadowed so skilfully I didn’t even realise it had been foreshadowed until a couple hours later.

Something The Magicians really does have in common with Harry Potter, I suppose, is that the book is better than the movie—or, in this case, TV show.