01 November 2009

Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

One chilly fall day, Quentin Coldwater, smart and nerdy—but not in a cool way—was headed to his college interview for Princeton. He was thinking about the future and the chance to escape his Brooklyn life with his neglectful parents. As he was knocking on the door of his scheduled meeting place, Quentin had no inkling that life as he knew it had just ended.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman is the story of Quentin's discovery of his magical skills, his four years in magicians college, and what happens after he graduates. I had heard the book described as Harry Potter for grownups. A more accurate description would be Harry Potter plus Narnia with a pinch of Lord of the Rings and the Arthur legends.

If you are worried about spoilers, stop reading now and skip to below the asterisks.

The Harry Potter similarities are fairly obvious: There is a magical school that is magically hidden from sight from the rest of the world. At some point, the students get sorted into groups, and each group has its own reputation. There is a special game/sport. The main female student is a know-it-all. There is a device that can reverse time.

The Narnia similarities are equally obvious: There is magical world that can be reached either by having a magical object, by walking through a magical piece of furniture, or by being summoned. The children of one family have visited that world, and there is a series of books written about their adventures. If you use the magical object (a button), you end up in an in-between world of pools that lead to other worlds.

If you are familiar with Lord of the Rings and the King Arthur tales, you will sometimes have a sense of déjà vu. I'm not sure if there was much original material in The Magicians. Perhaps it was meant to be an obvious take off on the other books, but if so, the intentionality went over my head. Instead, I was left waiting for something new and different.

* * * * * *
Perhaps the novel could have worked if it didn't suffer from a couple of other flaws. Quentin is described as being unhappy and not wanting to return home or to see his parents, but I had trouble understanding why this was so. His father was a book editor, and his mother was an artist. Apparently they had a somewhat cavalier attitude about their roles as parents, but they weren't abusive. Quentin is not forced to do odious chores, and he seems to have a fairly normal existence. The cause of his general misery was undeveloped.

I also had trouble believing that the characters in the book were college students. They mostly seemed to act like sixteen-year-olds with the key to the liquor cabinet. I know that college students everywhere can get into the partying mode, but I felt that there was no real explanation for why Quentin's gang spent their evenings drinking. My general impression was that alcohol and sex were used solely to differentiate Brakebills students from Hogwarts students.

Although I found little to thrill me in The Magicians, doesn't mean you won't really like it. Readers at several commercial bookstore sites have given the novel an average of 3½ stars, as did readers at the social book-cataloging sites. Here's a look at three blog reviews: A Novel Menagerie gave the book 7.5 out of 10; Stephanie's Written Word had this to say: "[it] is pure literary magic." And Beyond Books gave it 4½ stars.

The Magicians at Powell's
The Magicians at Amazon
These 3 links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by Penguin USA, 2009
ISBN-13: 9780670020553
Challenges: 100+
YTD: 79
Source: Review copy (see review policy)
Rating C−


Aarti 11/1/09, 1:01 PM  

Wow, it seems like the book draws a lot on other successful fantasy novels. I know it's hard to be original sometimes, but it can't be THAT hard. Thanks for such an honest review, Beth!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks 11/1/09, 1:38 PM  

I wondered the same thing - Is Grossman winking at the reader with his obvious parallels between the magical worlds of THE MAGICIANS and those other popular fantasy books? If it was a private joke, I'm not "in on it."

I'll read the other reviews you linked to, to see if I can get a sense of what I missed in my reading of it.

Jenn's Bookshelves 11/1/09, 2:27 PM  

I had a very similar response after reading it. The similarities were too apparent and I didn't feel it had enough to hold it's own. I was quite frustrated after hearing some pretty stellar reviews. Just goes to show to each his own!

Anonymous,  11/1/09, 3:08 PM  

Ah gosh. So many people are saying this is a completely derivative work, and your review is just cementing that...DAMN IT. the excitement at reading this novel is seeping, seeping away....

Great review though. ;)


Sandy Nawrot 11/1/09, 3:14 PM  

Well, I know you know how I feel about "wannabes"...they irritate the hell out of me. Whether this was all intentional or not, I will probably never know. I've read the good reviews and the bad, but the bottom line is that I really need original thoughts to get excited. Too many of those already on my list!

Meghan 11/1/09, 4:11 PM  

I wasn't crazy about this book but I did appreciate that it was sort of a play on all of those other fantasy books - in fact that was the only thing I liked about it. So I can see your problem with it!

Carrie K. 11/1/09, 4:22 PM  

Great review - you've mentioned some of the same things that bothered me about this book, too. Also the fact that Quentin never seems to grow or change as a person - he starts out unhappy and cynical and ends the book unhappy and cynical. I gave it 3 out of 5 stars - simply because I thought he was a good writer. I wasn't unhappy I read it, but it was a disappointment in a lot of ways.

bermudaonion 11/1/09, 4:35 PM  

I struggled with this book, too. It seemed like there were a lot of plot lines that were started and then dropped. Like you, I kept waiting for something to happen.

Beth Kephart 11/1/09, 5:09 PM  

I had been skeptical about this book, even when I read raves from critics. Thank you for clarifying just how far (or not) this stretches into the realm of the original.

I actually felt a little mad, reading this review.

caite 11/1/09, 5:12 PM  

completely derivative is not a good thing. when you are "borrowing" others ideas, you have to know when to stop.

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) 11/1/09, 6:54 PM  

I got into the story quite easily and was looking forward to reading it but after a while it just suffered from inertia and on top of being derivative it just never gain enough momentum.

Amy 11/1/09, 6:58 PM  

I had a lot of the same thoughts about the book. I enjoyed it in the end but it just felt like he was trying to write what he thought would be a better Harry Potter but I don't think he got there. Good review.

Julie P. 11/1/09, 8:22 PM  

I am only about a quarter of the way through this book. I'm not loving it and I keep picking up other books. It's not terrible, it's just not something I look forward to picking back up.

Melody 11/1/09, 9:39 PM  

Thanks for the review, Beth! I've this book in my pile! ;)

Anonymous,  11/1/09, 9:47 PM  

But will you read the sequel? While I was disappointed with the book, I'm still curious enough to keep reading.

Jenners 11/1/09, 9:48 PM  

It does sound a bit derivative but at least it is based on some great books! Seems like thought is divided on this one.

Alexia561 11/1/09, 11:09 PM  

I started this book, but put it down in favor of others. I'll eventually go back and finish it, but it didn't grab me the way I expected from reading all of the rave reviews. Thank you for your review, as now I don't feel so bad for putting it down!

Jen - devourer of books 11/2/09, 2:07 PM  

Hmm, yah, I think that this will not be anywhere near the top of my TBR list...

Unknown 11/2/09, 3:05 PM  

I've still got about 150 pages to go, so I've only really skimmed your review (I'll be back when I've done) Has to be said though, with nearly all the book done, I'm still not entirely sure what I think about it!

Nely 11/2/09, 4:47 PM  

I've read such conflicting reviews on this one. I think I'm going to have to read it myself. I appreciate the honest review. :D

Serena 11/3/09, 10:04 AM  

I was reading Bermudaonion's review and she says that some of the references to fantasy novels were lost on her and I wonder if I would be equally lost since I really haven't read too many fantasy novels of this ilk. I have read Lord of the Rings and some King Arthur tales, but not Harry Potter, etc.

Kailana 11/4/09, 6:15 AM  

I don't know about this book, but I am still going to give it a try. I have it out from the library at the moment...

S. Krishna 11/10/09, 9:45 AM  

That is such a good point, that the drinking was used to distinguish this book from Harry Potter. I didn't think about it that way but I think you're completely right.

Cara Powers 11/11/09, 1:19 PM  

I'm so glad you and most of your commenters agree with me about this book, or maybe that I agree with you. You have a much larger readership and are far more respected than I am, so I'm really glad you said it.

Carl V. Anderson 9/13/11, 6:12 AM  

While I didn't take issue at the similarities to other stories (which I believe was intentional and not merely to borrow for the sake of fleshing out the book) I do agree wholeheartedly with your overall take on the story.

"They mostly seemed to act like sixteen-year-olds with the key to the liquor cabinet."

Great description! There wasn't much explanation to their behavior other than a general assumption that these kids who probably didn't relate to anyone in the "real" world suddenly were the "cool kids" and so they reveled in all the things that teens are supposed to do, drink, have sex, etc. I didn't find it so much as unrealistic as I did just pointless. The book seemed to champion the wasted, wasteful existence of a bunch of kids privileged with wonderful powers. I got tired of the childish self-centered behavior and didn't see any character growth that made me want to read any more of the books in this series.

Thanks for stopping by. I read all comments and may respond here, via e-mail, or on your blog. I visit everyone who comments, but not necessarily right away.

I cannot turn off word verification, but if you are logged into Blogger you can ignore the captcha. I have set posts older than 14 days to be on moderation. I can no longer accept anonymous comments. I'm so sorry if this means you have to register or if you have trouble commenting.


All content and photos (except where noted) copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads 2008-2020. All rights reserved.



To The Blogger Guide, Blogger Buster, Tips Blogger, Our Blogger Templates, BlogU, and Exploding Boy for the code for customizing my blog. To Old Book Illustrations for my ID photo. To SEO for meta-tag analysis. To Blogger Widgets for the avatars in my comments and sidebar gadgets. To Review of the Web for more gadgets. To SuziQ from Whimpulsive for help with my comments section. To Cool Tricks N Tips for my Google +1 button.

Quick Linker



  © Blogger template Coozie by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP