The International Writers Magazine: Review
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Paperback: Plume (May 25, 2010)
Sam Hawksmoor review
Anyone who ever saw ‘Igby Goes Down’ or read Donna Tart's 'Secret History' would relish more. Quentin Coldwater (think Ryan Phillipe) has discontent and preppy New York down to a tee and although being miserable is every teenagers right of passage, being excessively bright with it only heightens the disillusionment. Mix in ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ and you have the right perspective to enter the world of ‘The Magicians’.
When Quentin and best friend James go for their alumni interview for Princeton they discover the old guy who was to vet them is dead in his Manhattan home. James just wants out of there, but Quentin does the right thing and calls it in. They are about to leave when the paramedic (an attractive woman that has caught Quentin’s attention) insists he take an envelope with his name on it. James refuses to take his, but Quentin accepts, after all it has his name on it. When he opens it later, after James has gone to meet his girlfriend Julia (and object of Quentin’s lust) he discovers it is not anything to do with Princeton, but a handwritten copy of ‘The Magicians Book Six of Fillory and Further’.
He is sure of one thing. There were only ever five books about Fillory. Fillory is an imagined secret world that he and his friends obsessed about when younger, in a way that kids also obsess about Harry Potter. It is a magical paradise where anything can happen, ruled by giant Rams and is full of talking animals. An enclosed note is whipped away by the wind and Quentin pursues it through a neighbourhood community garden, going deeper and deeper into it until – weirdly he emerges through a dense hedge onto a perfectly wide green lawn that just could not be Seventh Avenue, New York. Quentin, like magic, has arrived at Brakebills College Upstate New York and is greeted rather reluctantly by the fop Eliot who takes him to meet the Dean, Henry Fogg. Quentin discovers he’s late for an entrance exam to a college he has never heard of. Worse, the exam is the hardest he’s ever taken and being a compulsive obsessive himself, he feels obliged to do his best.
Quentin passes. He has been accepted to a college he has never applied for and instead of finance or quantum physics he will be studying ‘magic’ at Brakebills College for Magic Pedagogy. It means abandoning his best friends James and Julia and lying to his parents about what type of college he is at and it doesn’t even offer any clear ‘career’ path that makes any sense, but Quentin grabs the chance. He has always wanted magic to be real thanks to the Fillory books, now he realises it could be.
Unlike when Harry entered Hogwarts – the world Quentin enters also involves copious amounts of alcohol, sex, and bloody hard work. But he also makes lifelong friends in the four years of study ahead. But something is still wrong for Quentin. Magic doesn't bring him the happiness and adventure he thought it would.
There is nothing cute in The Magicians. They wouldn’t be caught dead with a wand. They despise organised games and it takes forever for Quentin to realise that he is in love with a fellow student, the petite, but exceptionally bright Alice. His life is entwined with Eliot, the drunken fop, Josh, an overweight physical magician and Penny, who is an oddball loner with aggressive tendencies, as well as Janet who pines after Eliot who has no interest in girls. This is Donna Tart’s ‘Secret History’ with magic.
Nothing expected happens. Quentin might discover that happiness is not something that awaits him. Study is not easy, one slip and death will strike, after all they are playing with ‘magic’. Relationships form and are broken and no one can ever go home for long – real life is just too mundane. Sadly Quentin discovers what has happened to Julia since he has been gone and it isn't pretty.
The Magicians is utterly captivating. For graduates of Potter, it is a compulsory antidote and it might cure a few Twilighters' as well and it knocks Narnia into a cocked hat (Not that I have actually seen a cocked hat lately).
Most special for me was the flight of the snow geese heading south. It takes skill to get us up in the air and believe we are geese, but Lev Grossman does it with aplomb and it is perfect moment in a book that is never afraid to be calm or demonstrate that learning magic is tough and not for the fainthearted. It is a long journey and you get to know every mood and weakness of the characters. Grossman is not afraid to disappoint or surprise and you grow up and learn to love these oddball characters as they progress through the school years.
Finally when the graduates discover Fillory is actually real everything kicks off with no holds barred. The best young adult novel in bloody years.
Discover The Magicians yourself and be amazed. Now for the sequel:
The Magician King
There’s sometimes a slight problem with sequels. Anticipation for example. You are reading the second part of the amazing ‘Magicians’ by Lev Grossman because you were so impressed by the first. I am sure that the author would be quick to correct me but I sense that Lev Grossman was a reluctant writer on this because he’d said all he needed to on the first volume. Either that or this much darker book is closer to what he wanted to write in the first place.
The Magicians was all about kids who went to Brakebills, this elite, but so secret college of magic that you only got to by invitation and passing a difficult math exam. Be accepted and you’d spend the rest of your life lying to your parents about who and what you are. It is about magic and the serious study of it and couldn’t be more different to ‘Potter’ containing sex, death, alcohol and violence, but not necessarily in that order.
Julia however didn’t get into Brakebills (the secret college) and has been a seething mess of resentment ever since, effectively destroying her life in the pursuit of magic freely given to her friend Quentin and his pals Elliot and Janet.
But that’s the present. Now all our living happily ever after in Fillory – the alternate magic universe that they thought was just a series of kids books but turned out to be real.
Confused? You will be as Quentin, Julia, Elliot and Janet are now kings and queens living the good life in a mythical paradise. Hunting, fishing, even jousting on the menu every day.
Quentin is a tad bored however and seeks a quest. Of course you need to beware of what you wish for…
Events bequeath a quest to King Quentin and he commands a vessel to take him East and the remote outposts of the kingdom – taking Queen Julia along for company.
But in an alternate chapter you will begin another possibly more importand darker journey. Julia’s tortured path to Fillory. It isn’t pretty or nice and not for the squeamish. Desperation makes you do strange things and Julia has done it all to gain ‘the knowledge’.
The Magician King is rich in imagery, sometimes harsh and thrilling and the quest for the seven rings becomes more urgent as magic ‘leaks’ out of the system. Do not attempt to read this without reading ‘The Magicians’ first – it’s like the exam at Brakebills, part of the course. Do not share this book with younger siblings either; there are things you’d rather they didn’t know just yet.
© Sam Hawksmoor November 2010
Pre-order 'The Repossession' out March 1st 2012
'Stunning sci-fi novel, with an exceptionally likeable central pairing and a fast-moving and exciting plot. Totally crazy in the very best way'. Bookbag
Other books you should take a look at Cora Parry