I really, really expected to like this book.
It’s a book about magic, for one, and that’s my effing fave. For another, it’s a book about magic that takes place alongside the real world, which is the niche that I live for. And for a final, it’s a book that the New York Times claimed “could crudely be labeled Harry Potter for adults,” so I was sold.
Of course, expectations can betray you.
The only thing about this book that made it ‘Harry Potter for adults’ is that it dealt with a seemingly ordinary (sort of) boy being surprise-enrolled in a magical university, having sex, and swearing. That’s… pretty much where that comparison ends.
Quentin Coldwater is a high school senior when he sits the complex, confusing exam for Brakebills, a school for magic that you can’t find unless you’re invited. He’s a completely relatable character in that he was obsessed with a fictional book series as a child, one that heavily parallels C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia though it centers around Chatwins instead of Pevensies and it takes place in Fillory rather than Narnia. He’s a completely non-relatable character in that he’s a math supergenius who’s kind of a dick. … Constantly.
A lot of the synopses for this book state that it’s about Coldwater discovering Fillory and engaging in an epic adventure there with his ragtag gang, but that is so misleading. The majority of the book takes place at Brakebills, and details the sometimes interesting, oftentimes boring process of learning magic.
Unlike J.K. Rowling’s magical world where the technicalities and ‘how’s of magic are glossed over in favor of plot and character development, Grossman’s coverage of the magical schooling process is detailed into dullness. It seems imperative that the readers understand that in this universe, learning magic is difficult and real, unlike the silly nonsense of those other magical stories. At several points, Grossman draws outright parallels to other fantasy novels and makes it clear that Quentin Coldwater is a Serious Magician who says adult words like ‘fuck,’ and in the process basically kicks the giants as he stands on their shoulders.
Of course, all of the information we’re given about this universe is through the lens of the protagonist Coldwater, who’s not a pleasant dude. He’s a thoroughly unlikable main character: he constantly blames others for his unhappiness, can’t seem to see or own up to his own mistakes (some of which get people killed), and is weirdly misogynistic. It’s likely just my own personal bias that I’m bringing to this book as a reader, but struggling to identify or sympathize with Quentin made it difficult to care about the outcome of this story, even once they had made their way into Fillory.
Once again, I think the fault here really lies with my expectations. When I read a fantasy novel about a ‘regular guy’ swept into a magical land, I expect an aspect of fairytale wonder to come into play, an escape from the base ugliness of reality. With Grossmans The Magicians, you’re never allowed to escape reality, since Quentin himself can’t seem to escape it no matter how much further down the magical-realm rabbit hole he goes. In that way, it’s masterful; you are almost as frustrated as Quentin at points, waiting for the ‘real’ story to begin, which is exactly what Quentin is doing even as he works his way through Brakebills and beyond.
Unfortunately, Quentin’s self-imposed misery and hypocrisy made me more turned off than engaged, and by the halfway point it was a real effort to finish the book. The pace was erratic, dragging and frantic at alternating points, and the ending itself wasn’t particularly satisfactory, since it was a clear jumping-off point to a sequel rather than a wrap-up of a novel. I never found myself invested in any of the characters since they were all whiny and weighted down with an almost forced surplus of ‘edginess,’ one that felt more like a poor attempt at Donna Tartt-esque personification than anything else.
Thankfully, Grossman is a skilled writer, so the descriptions of his world were crisp and lovely. I hope he produces another series soon, since I just can’t bring myself to pick up another Magicians novel.