[Review] Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians”

I am not an enormous fan of fantasy* but I have been known to make exceptions for urban fantasy. Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” popped up on a book list recommend by the lit snobs over at Slate. As I cannot resist lit snobbery, and it comes in convenient e-book form, it appeared on my Kindle.

Quentin, our super brilliant emo protagonist who normally would be in line for the new Arcade Fire CD, is whisked off mysteriously to take a bunch of entrance exams for some mysterious Wizard College. He gets in after some brutal and bizarre exams, because he’s the main character, and he gives up all the vestiges of his old life to become a wizard. The first half of the Magician’s is a bit of Harry Potter meets College Angst meets the X-Men. Quentin meets a whole bunch of other proto-wizards, makes a bunch of friends, and learns to become content with his weird wizarding self. This part of the book is more “New X-Men” than “Harry Potter” frankly — it feels more than a little like Professor Xavier and his secretive school for Mutants in Upstate New York than Hogwarts, especially once the students start to differentiate into different magical power specialities.

The second half is post-college early-20s angst with magic. The book picks up here. It feels like the characters are in a holding pen until they are let loose to go wreak havoc on the magical world. The book becomes funnier and it moves faster once it acquires something that resembles the vague outline of a plot; before then it was just a coming of age story set in a fantasy background. This book does have a lack-of-plot problem. The big evil is not well formed. The fantasy on a fantasy world is pretty vague although, to be fair, it is supposed to be. The fights are written well and the plot ends satisfyingly enough.

The book is highly readable. It doesn’t feel bogged down with turgid prose and it moves at a brisk pace. It mixes modern sensibilities and pop culture references (D&D references; fight club; drinks and drugs of all kinds) with urban fantasy into a nice little whole. The writing gets better as the book goes on, leading me to believe this is a sophomoric effort and leading me to hope for a possible sequel — something with a firmer plot with the same characters would make for a better story.

Originally I gave this book 3 stars out of 5 because I read it immediately following Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose.” If you have read Umberto Eco, you know it’s hard for a fantasy novel, let alone any novel, to follow up that act. I docked it a star merely because it came after a better written book. It’s unfair and I give it back half a star and upgrade it to 3 1/2 stars out of 5. It is good. Not great. Not fantastic. It is solidly a good and entertaining read.


* Exception made for Game of Thrones.

  • I hated “The Magicians.” I am not surprised the lit snobs at Slate loved it — it wasn’t written for fantasy fans, it was written for people who think that fantasy is something you shouldn’t really admit to liking. Some say Grossman was paying tribute; I thought he was just delivering a humorless deconstruction for his lit-crit buddies.