The Magicians follows the standard fantasy arc of: boy discovers magic is real, boy goes to magical school, boy and friends visit magical worlds and have magical adventures. But the difference here is that Quentin Coldwater is as angst-ridden a teenager as you’ll ever come across. This is not just a book about magical adventures, but the sex- and alcohol-fuelled adventures of growing up. The concept of a mopey, depressed hero who is constantly dissatisfied with life is one I find rather appealing. Add magic into the mix, and I figured Lev Grossman was onto a winning combination. However, on reading The Magicians I found myself disappointed at every page turn.
Grossman is deeply indebted to various other fantasy franchises, and is hyper-aware of this. His central character, Quentin, constantly compares his own magical experiences with a series of children’s books he never quite grew out of – the “Fillory” books by Christopher Plover (which are modelled on C. S. Lewis’s Narnia). The Magicians felt to me like it lacked really detailed world creation. I feel like I could ask J. K. Rowling any question about how magic functions in her world, and she’d be able to give me a detailed answer, probably with citations of magical academics of her own invention. I’m not sure Grossman would be able to do the same. What lore there is seems to have been borrowed from other sources. Grossman writes in depth about the various allusions in The Magicians:
“I had a rule for myself with The Magicians, which was that everything that exists in our world has to exist in the Magiciansverse. So for example, even though the characters go to a college for magic, I also thought that they all should have read Harry Potter. Inevitably little references to him creep into their conversation. I didn’t go overboard with it, because that would have gotten too cute and meta. I just thought it was realistic. Like Hermione hasn’t read the Narnia books a million times! But she never talks about it.”
I get it, I do, it’s a good rule. But the fact that Grossman has to break his own rule about Narnia, because he’s borrowed so much, just undermines it. To be fair, he admits this himself: “(Though if I’m being honest, I broke my own rule with Narnia. In the Magiciansverse, C.S. Lewis was never born. If he had he and Christopher Plover would have collapsed into each other and formed a space-time singularity. Which would be cool in a different way. But that would have been a whole other novel.)”
Despite his borrowing, Grossman seems to buck the trend by creating a hero/anti-hero who is not ‘chosen’ to contribute to a cause greater than himself. Grossman, then, is attempting to do something really interesting – creating an almost anti-fantasy novel. But his indebtedness to the books he’s attempting to rewrite just undermines his attempts. He invites comparisons with Rowling, C. S. Lewis and others, and does not come out on top. Unfortunately his writing often comes off as heavy-handed fan-fiction.
There was a lot to like about Grossman’s prose style. But I felt it was spoiled by his obsession with being ‘gritty’ (gratuitous arctic fox sex, anyone?). The other problem I had with The Magicians is the narrative itself. It is told in a series of anecdotes, or vignettes – with the first four or so years of Quentin’s magical education crammed into the first half of the novel. Any time you think the story is going somewhere, following a traditional story arc, the incident is abruptly closed off, unresolved. (This is perhaps also because of its ‘anti-fantasy’ leanings – because Quentin hasn’t been ‘chosen’, there is no driving force.) An example of this is in the magical “discipline” each student has a particular aptitude for, determined during the first few years of the student’s magical education. After the standard tests, Quentin’s discipline remains undetermined. It’s intriguing, and one of the occasions I finally thought the novel would have a sense of purpose. But after Quentin is temporarily assigned a discipline for the purposes of teaching, it’s never mentioned again. It creates no further tension or interest. After not being mentioned at all, it’s brought up in the last few pages of the book, as a bizarrely underwhelming cliffhanger.
The lack of direction certainly reflects Quentin’s meandering attitude to his own life, but it makes for uncomfortable reading. Most of these incidences are wrapped up in the final quarter of the novel, but by the time they are, I’d stopped caring, when I could even remember that far back. The loose ends, or most of them, are tied up. The pay-off, when it comes, is nearly worthwhile. But for me it was undermined by Grossman fairly immediately afterwards brutally killing off one of the main characters. Any sense of satisfaction at the resolution is immediately replaced by a sense of futile emptiness. It’s almost like Grossman is aware of the escapism we readers crave, which Quentin craves, and has decided to punish us for it. It’s clever, and I won’t deny it had an emotional impact on me (beyond frustration). But it results in a deeply unsatisfying read.