The Magicians by Lev Grossman

20th July 2011

The short version: A story of college students at a school of magic who aren’t happy with their lives and sit around drinking and complaining before they graduate and do a lot more drinking and complaining before they go looking for trouble…and find it.

Warning: a somewhat snarky review follows.


Quentin is the smartest kid he knows, but he is bored as hell. His parents are wrapped up in their own lives, and the girl he’s in love with isn’t in love with him. He has grown up reading a series of books about children who had adventures in the land of Fillory, and he’s stuck on Earth. In other words, his life is atrocious, and no one else has ever experienced such horrendous torture. You should all feel very sorry for him. Quentin certainly does, until an odd series of events leads him to Brakebills College, an elite school of magic where he passes the entrance exam.

From then on, it’s magic and studying and magic and studying with a few high and low points, like having sex while transformed into a fox, nearly dying in the wilds of Antarctica, and sitting around playing welters, a game of magic. Then Quentin and his friends, Eliot, Janet, Josh, and girlfriend Alice all graduate. Life as a magician in the real world is pretty boring. Do you get a real job? Well, why would you? There is a mysterious “magician’s fund” that apparently is never depleted and provides magicians money when they need it. (I’m all in, by the way.) However, again these characters are miserable – drinking too much, doing drugs, having meaningless sex – and they need something. That something is Fillory. Because lo and behold, it really exists. So the gang ponies up and heads to Fillory, but it isn’t all magic bunnies and beautiful nymphs. Something is wrong in Fillory, and Quentin must figure out what it is in order to try to be happy. (Here’s where the plot finally comes in, right around page 240.)


Because that’s all this novel is really about. Quentin is really really unhappy with absolutely no real reason (until the end) to be unhappy. But I have to start this review with this: Lev Grossman has some serious writing chops. In fact, that’s the only reason I finished this novel because lord have mercy, it was long. And drawn out. And not a lot happened for two-thirds of the book. There is no overarching plot here, and I guess that’s what annoyed me the most. At times I checked to make sure it wasn’t a spoof of Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia, since it referenced each multiple times. Fillory was essentially Narnia, which made me think Grossman could have just used it in the book instead of creating something so darn similar but not calling it Narnia. I kept checking to see what page I was on because I could not believe how long it was taking me to read this book. Without any real plot to move the book along, Grossman relies on his characters, and they are kind of a bunch of assholes. They are selfish, lazy, and pretentious. Alice, Quentin’s girlfriend, was the only character I remotely liked, simply because her background and unhappiness made sense. Everyone else just sort of claimed unhappiness for sport. Alice is the only one who actually points it out, telling Quentin:

[L]ook at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it; there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.

And pretty much, he is miserable forever – at least the forever that is this book – even with a pretty cool, British-y magic school, some pretty darn good friends, and money out the wazoo. Ultimately, this book was an exercise in futility, reinforcing the idea that some people ain’t happy and ain’t never gonna be happy, no matter what. If that’s magic, I don’t really want any part of it.

So I gotta know – have you read this? Did you react at all to it like I did? Or have I lost my non-magical mind?

jenn aka the picky girl

P.S. All is not lost. The nice folks at Viking sent me this book and The Magician King, the sequel to this book, for me to read and review. Come back tomorrow for a giveaway and to see why I think it’s (somewhat) redemptive.

Other Reviews:

The New York Times

Fantasy Book Review

Entomology of a Bookworm

  • Oh ha! Brilliant! Agree with everything you have said (yes long, especially wandering around in Fillory, yes unlikable, selfish characters, terribly discouraging ending)….and then I still loved it anyway. Not in a happy way, but I was absolutely caught up in the magic of it and found it a very sad consideration of adults not being able to let go of the Fillory/Narnia fantasy. (If you like his writing but not this particular story you might enjoy Codex – about a secret book – less devastating, tauter, shorter.)

    • Anonymous

      Thanks so much! It’s good to know you enjoyed it, and yes, the magic was interesting. I liked that it didn’t come easy. And you make a good point about adults being unable to give up the fantasy.

      I’ll definitely give Codex a try. Thanks for the recommendation!

  • Anonymous

    I can see your point. And some times I felt the same way as I read. But I loved it. I have The Magician’s King, too. I’m reading it as soon as I’m done with The Reservoir. I’m going to withhold final judgment until I’ve had chance to see what it’s like.

    I do have some insight (from the author) as to why Fillory is the way it is, but you’ll have to wait to read it.

    A Discovery of Witches is another one that’s part of a series, and the whole first book almost feels like set-up for the real plot. That’s a bit of a change after reading series like Harry Potter, where each book has its own self-contained plot in addition to the grand plot that binds all the books together. I wonder if that’s a new trend?

    • Anonymous

      I’ve already read The Magician King, so I’m curious as to what the author said about Fillory, but I don’t feel like I should have to read an entire book of set up before arriving at the “real” plot. To me, that’s lazy. If it had introduced some conflict early on but still hadn’t revealed the entire plot, that’s ok with me. As is, it’s plot-less for so long that he greatly risked me not finishing this book (except that’s totally not like me). And from a lot of the reviews I’ve read since finishing, looks like a lot of people felt that way.

      And see, I read a lot of comparisons with Harry Potter, and I’m glad I didn’t know that ahead of time. You can compare the two in terms of “they’re both at magic school” but the similarities end there. That is perfectly fine; however, I’ll go back to – give me a damn plot. Grr.

  • I read this one earlier this year and didn’t not enjoy it. I don’t plan on reading the sequel.

    • Anonymous

      Brenna – do you mind me asking why? I’m trying to gauge why exactly it bothers different people.

  • Interesting. Not sure if I’m drawn to it as I would with other fantasy novels, though. Might check it out when next I’m at the bookstore…

    • Anonymous

      I’d really like to know what you think about it if you do. Like I said, I kept reading, so obviously there was something holding me (the writing), but it was an odd experience.

  • Oooooh — I’m starting this tonight to review the sequel and I sort of ignored it when it first came out because it seemed a bit indulgent. I suspect I’ll feel the same way as you so hopefully I’ll find some redemption in the sequel as well. Fingers crossed!

    • Anonymous

      Audra – can’t wait to see what you have to say. It’s been a while since I’ve felt this way about a book, so I’m super interested in everyone else’s reactions. I did like the sequel a bit better, but you’ll just have to wait and see why…

      • I’m a tad nervous — I’m pretty impatient with male protagonists at time. Hopefully Alice makes up for it!

        • Anonymous

          She did for me. But yeah – I had a friend who reminded me a lot of Q. Had everything he possibly could have wanted but still complained about everything. I don’t have much patience for that.

  • Chrisbookarama

    Sounds kinda depressing. 🙁

    • Yeah – it kind of was. The sequel was much better.

  • Tony and I read this aloud to one another and we both hated it. I thought it was terrible and completely unmagical. It was just an awful amalgam of other far more successful Fantasy novels with loathsome characters. I was sad to hear that there was a sequel coming out because I can’t imaging spending any more time with these awful people… I know you say it’s better, but I feel like pretty much anything would have to be. And I still will never read it!

    • HAHAHA! You are too funny. We tend to run in the same range on books, and yes, really didn’t like it either. The sequel is so much better, but if you didn’t like Quentin, you still won’t. However, as I mention in today’s review, Julia’s story was WOW – batshit crazy, but good.

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  • Guest

    Recently finished The Magician and had the exact same reaction. A book about whinney, over-privileged kids who can’t appreciate what they have. Quentin was pathetic and completely unlikable. When he asks in a part of the book if maybe there was something wrong with him instead of the world, I wanted to scream “Yes!” while shaking him. I just do not understand what so many people find enjoyable about this book. I’m a huge fan of fantasy and was so thoroughly disappointed by this book. I even enjoyed the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) references to other authors I’ve read. But the characters were vapid and uninteresting while the plot meandered along rather aimlessly, just like Quentin. I’m not sure I can give The Magician King a chance.

    • My thoughts exactly. I did give it a chance (partially because it was a review copy) and did enjoy TMK much more, but still. Quentin goes on my least-favorite-character list.

  • Lyndale Press

    I came here via The Book Lady because your comment was the only one not praising The Magicians. I think your review is spot-on. I didn’t like the book either (here’s my review:

    • Well I’m so glad you stopped by. People are pretty torn by this one. I’ll check your post out later when I get home. Thanks for leaving the link!

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