Lev Grossman’s recently completed fantasy trilogy caught my attention earlier this year, and even though I’m in the middle of a couple other series right now I had to check this one out. And let me just say: WHOA.
About the book: Quentin is just an ordinary guy–an ordinary genius guy with genius friends interviewing for Ivy League schools and preparing for prestigious futures. But he’s bored and unhappy and can’t figure out why–until he steps through a garden and finds himself at Brakebills, secret school for Magicians, where he’s told that he’s always been a magician and he’s unhappy because he doesn’t belong in the mundane world he’s been living in. Brakebills is a five-year college program that trains America’s Magicians from upstate New York. That’s not even the weird part, though. The magical part of this book comes in the fact that Quentin’s favorite fantasy series from childhood (and beyond) is not as fictional as everyone had thought. It’s common knowledge that the Chatwin children really lived next door to the author who wrote about them, but who would ever believe that their fantastical journeys to magical Fillory were anything but the author’s fictional creations? The possibility that Fillory is a real place, though, is only one of Quentin’s many concerns. He makes plenty of friends (the Physical Kids) and enemies (students and otherwise) at Brakebills, must escape “the Beast,” a powerful and deadly creature from another realm who shows up unexpectedly in one of Quentin’s classes, and on top of all that there’s the mystery of the missing fourth years to solve and the mandatory welters tournaments to contend with. Brakebills turns out to be a challenge of survival as much as a formal education.
“Quentin knew he wasn’t happy. Why not? He had painstakingly assembled all the ingredients of happiness. He had performed all the necessary rituals, spoken the words, lit the candles, made the sacrifices. But happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come. He couldn’t think what else to do.”
The Magicians is a mishmash of the Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, and… another element that I have no comparison for in my reading life. Something like the Heroes TV show. And yet, despite all these similarities, The Magicians is also firmly its own entity.
“But somewhere in the heat of magic that boundary between word and thing ruptures. It cracks, and the one flows back into the other, and the two melt together and fuse. Language gets tangled up with the world it describes.”
The characters are compelling and completely readable, even when you don’t like them or their choices. They’re not morally black and white, which makes them unpredictable and exciting. These are people you could meet on the street and have a conversation with, which is what makes the magical parts of this story feel plausible.
“Most people are blind to magic. They move through a blank and empty world. They’re bored with their lives, and there’s nothing they can do about it. They’re eaten alive by longing, and they’re dead before they die.”
There are two types of books (depending on how you categorize them): the kind with a single point of tension in the plot that’s introduced early and grows consistently throughout, leaving the reader with the same major question until the end of the book; there’s also the kind with myriad plot points that are solved one at a time, building off of each other and changing the story so greatly that the reader’s questions are always changing and there’s no way of knowing which answers to expect at the end of the book. Do you know what I mean? (Example: my last review featured Garber’s Caraval, which had a single point of tension that grew: where was Scarlett’s sister?) The Magicians fits into the second category. Although all of the little points accumulate into one big climax toward the end, the book is divided into “books” and further into chapters, each with its own questions and answers that are mostly provided one at a time until the end.
This is the most realistic format, in my opinion, and it also translates well into TV shows because the story line is easier to separate into episodes when it has all these little arcs. It has to be done carefully, though, because without a constant line of inquiry to carry the reader through the entire book, you run the risk of becoming bored while you’re waiting for all these little plot points to mean something. I did hit that sort of snag somewhere in the middle of this book, but I pushed through and the story picked up again before long.
But back to the TV show talk. I did watch the entire first season of The Magicians already, and I’m glad there was only one season on Netflix so far because if there had been more I would not have hesitated to keep going even though I haven’t read more than the first book yet. I suspect that I learned a few things that come up in later parts of the trilogy from the first season of the TV show, but really the two formats of this story are so disparate that I didn’t mind. I wouldn’t say that the story line in the show is entirely changed, but there are enough differences that even having read the book I could never be sure exactly where the show was going. That said, I was glad to already know who the characters were and what the main plot points should be before watching the show because it’s fast-paced and packed with so much magic and action and mystery that the book felt like a guide to the TV show. I think I loved the show even more than the book, but I’m glad I read the book before watching and I am also (begrudgingly) glad that I’ll have time to finish reading the series before the next season is available on Netflix. A brief warning for anyone who wants to check out the show: the first season ends in a cliffhanger that’s answered in the book, but I think the TV show will have to solve the cliffhanger in a slightly different way.
Whether you’re more interested in the book or the TV show, the characters in both–and their utterly odd lives–are absolutely captivating and will stay in your head for a long time afterward. Their world is so different, and yet…so relatable. The writing is beautiful and the points it makes are impossible to ignore. Magic is so real here, and at the same time, it feels like a metaphor I haven’t fully deciphered yet.
“In a way fighting like this was just like using magic. You said the words, and they altered the universe. By merely speaking you could create damage and pain, cause tears to fall, drive people away, make yourself feel better, make your life worse.”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting from this book, but nothing I could have expected would have landed anywhere close to what I found. I immediately felt like I needed to take a breather when I finished this first book, but I’ve already got the second book on hold at my library and I started watching the corresponding TV show within hours of putting the book down. There was SO MUCH packed into this book and I have absolutely no idea where it will go next, but I’m excited to find out!
- If you are intrigued by Fillory, you should check out C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, first book (in chronological order) The Magician’s Nephew. There are so, so many similarities between Fillory and Narnia, and a close comparison would be incredibly interesting, in my opinion.
- Pierce Brown’s Red Rising is the first book in a trilogy with a similar format of small plot points that all add up to something giant rather than one huge tension arc that remains consistent through the book. The plot twists in this one are crazy, and while there’s not magic, per se, this series is set on futuristic Mars, so there’s plenty of otherworldly detail. Much like The Magicians, you never can tell who will die.
- The Secret History by Donna Tart is the way to go if your favorite part of The Magicians is the characters’ time at school, where the odd relationships and their consequences turn out to be just as important as the curriculum. This one, much like the Physical Kids’ group, features a small, elite group of students who spend most of their time together and thus grow together into one epic disaster.
Coming up next: I just dashed through All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven in its entirety. I was expecting more romance than tragedy from this contemporary YA, but through the highs and lows the book is compulsively readable and I couldn’t put it down. I finished reading about Violet and Finch’s excursions through Indiana and brushes with death in two sittings and I’ll have all of my thoughts on that ready to share with you tomorrow.
Do you ever read two very opposite books back to back and wonder how you acquired your literary tastes?
The Literary Elephant
Update: you can now read my full review of the next book in this series, The Magician King!