Lev Grossman's international bestseller and first installment of the Magicians trilogy, The Magicians follows Quentin Coldwater, an unassuming and depressed high school grad, who suddenly finds his childhood beliefs realized when he's brought into the world of Brakebills, a school for magic users. There, he finds that the fantastical fictional adventures he craved in his youth might not be as far-off as he had always envisioned... and that it might house dangers more menacing than he ever would have guessed. With Quentin and his friends coping with more than just secondary education, but relationships, friendship, and the existence of forces beyond their control, they're going to have to stick by each other if they're going to navigate this new territory, not to mention get out of it all alive.
Like I mentioned before, getting into this book was a little bit of an exercise for me. I had originally included it in my experiment with Book Speed-Dating a couple of months ago, and immediately planned to read it soon... but when I did, I found myself getting bored, to the point where I nearly DNF'd about 50 pages in. I let it stew for about another month, and didn't feel too inspired to pick it up, which nearly led me to remove its bookmark and put it back on the TBR shelf, but I decided I wasn't going to let it go without giving it my very best try.
Only a few days later, I had completely finished the book, and immediately planned for procuring a copy of its sequel. So, a little bit of an exercise in patience and perseverance.
I think the main factor of this irritation, was that it takes a little while to get going. And it's not just the beginning of the novel: I feel like there are some pacing issues throughout the rest of the book, as well, mainly factored into its divisions into Parts throughout its body.
Going alongside that, there were segments of the book that just moved along too quickly, and didn't feel like there was closure on elements of the novel that I would have liked to have seen a little more focus on. One of those particular points, of course, was of Quentin's life at Brakebills, which - despite the descriptions on both the book's official blurb, as well as it's marketing strategy summed up by the phrase "grown-up Harry Potter" - was fairly short, as perhaps only the first half of the book summarized his few brief years there.
This was a bit of a bummer for me, because as someone who's spent a lot of time attending schools that look fairly magical from the outside - see Stadium High School in Tacoma, or the University of Washington in Seattle - I'd like to have heard more about the inner workings of a real one.
Because I mentioned the Hogwarts send-up, I feel like I need to address that point, as well: yes, the book pays homage to elements of Harry Potter, as it also does for the Chronicles of Narnia series, in a way that is very deliberately evocative and more than a little tongue-in-cheek. However, while the worlds of Brakebills and Fillory owe a lot of creative inspiration from those fictional juggernauts, the counterpoints never felt like they were retreading any overly familiar material in a way that was cliche, or heavy-handed. It still managed to keep it new, by integrating systems of magic that were really comprehensive, and was one of the best portrayals of urban fantasy I've read in a while, especially when integrated with elements of high fantasy, as well.
Another thing Grossman did quite well, was write Quentin's depression in a way that informed his character and impacted his relationship and progression with other characters, with truth and realism behind it. It's not made too much of an explicit plot point, but it does serve as an implicit character trait, and explains much of his relationship with the idea of magic and the escapism of Fillory. It was probably one of my favorite stylistic and character choices throughout the novel.
Another favorite character choice, was that it would be nearly impossible to pick my favorite character. The answer is not "Because they're all my favorite!" but more along the lines of "Because they're all kind of jerks a lot of the time!" Neither Quentin, nor friends like Alice, Penny, Elliot or Janet, are very good people... in the case of black and white characters, there all fairly among the spectrum of determinedly dark grey, and that provides some pretty unique shading to their interactions. It's a loyal group of fairly self-serving people, and those conflicts that arise are so firmly entrenched with their own deficits, that the plot - a urban-high fantasy hyrbid with monsters and magical schools - remains incredibly character-driven, at its core, which seems like a pretty impressive feat to me.
(And, because I'd feel bad if I recommended it without mentioning, there's quite a bit of sex in it. Yeah, I know, but it something I feel like I needed to bring up, because it's never just sex, but sex in the weirdly semi-uncomfortable way that seems unique to almost the entire male fantasy writer canon - Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin - so it's not like it's anything too out of the ordinary. I just skipped through those parts, honestly.)
Final Verdict: Beyond minor pacing issues, a lack of magical school syllabus, and maybe a little bit of awkward romantic interaction, this book was an absolute favorite of mine this year. I'm already looking forward to reading the sequel, The Magician King, sometime later this summer, and I've still got this mental teeter-totter argument going on with myself about whether investing in a Hulu account is something I'm willing to consider as doable, specifically for the sake of watching the SyFy show, which I've heard praised by nearly everyone I know who's watched it.
Have you read this series yet? Are you a fan of the SyFy show? What would you be willing to do to attend a magic college? Let me know, in the comments below!