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“Wasn’t there a spell for making yourself happy? Somebody must have invented one. How could he have missed it?”

In The Magicians by Lev Grossman, gloomy, disillusioned Quentin Coldwater is transported to a vaguely British magic school in Upstate New York called Brakebills. Magic is a dry, complicated art, relying on minute details from the position of the moon to the contortion of the hands. In other words, it’s utterly tedious, nothing like the wondrous wish-fulfillment magic of the stories Quentin has read. In this story, no fantastical escape can pull Quentin from the grip of his own self-inflicted misery.

the magiciansThe Magicians would be significantly better if it allowed itself to stop being jaded on occasion. It fails at most points to be a compelling story because it reads like it exists to prove a point, almost like satire, not like something meant to be loved and cherished by a reader. There’s little to hold onto emotionally in this book. The friendships are shallow and dysfunctional, the magic dry, distant, and fatigued. To an extent, this is the intention, as The Magicians is about a person who can’t find wonder in anything, even the most wonderful things—but a story with all lows and no highs doesn’t encourage attachment. The Magicians is good when it focuses on original material and not just subversion. Subverting tropes at every turn is not original; it’s still derivative, and it risks becoming a gimmick. Even worse, it makes a tiring and uninspired story.

The Magicians is a tongue-in-cheek, gritty foil for the whimsical, fantastic magic schools we all know and love. However, it doesn’t feel like adult fantasy as intended, but “adultified” fantasy. It has drinking and drugs and excessive self-importance and philosophizing, but it doesn’t have meaningful relationships, character development, or layers of complexity.

It’s difficult to empathize with these characters, these very pretentious teenagers who are passively miserable and horrible to each other, who’ve unlocked the magic of the universe but never for a minute dream of doing anything greater with it. The characters are witty but superficial, stereotypical, and unchanging. In this case, the pitfall of making commentary by means of subversion is that the book fails to separate itself from the characters’ affectedness. At some point, it ceases to be satirical, succumbing to the pull of Quentin’s pseudo-profundity, and thus becomes insufferable.

Just as the characters don’t come across as real, neither does Brakebills. To me, the school feels like the set of a play, a front attempting to convince the viewer that a more complete world exists behind it, when it’s apparent that it hides only a curtain. A school is a place where characters grow up, make friends, fight, and change as people. Even though Quentin spends years at Brakebills, I don’t get the feeling that this changes him, or that he’s made any genuine connections.

After all these years, Quentin only learns enough about himself to realize that he’s the one making himself miserable, but his realizations never go deeper than that. His character gives the impression of existing to make this one point. Ultimately, this is a theme that doesn’t go anywhere. It’s quite obvious from the start that Quentin refuses to be optimistic, so when he’s called out for his attitude but never develops as a character, the whole book feels like a meandering ramble in Quentin’s psyche that doesn’t go beyond surface-level or affect anything about him. Quentin ends up in the same place as he was at the beginning, which is supremely unsatisfying.

However, some parts of this book are genuinely good. Like many other readers, I enjoyed the Antarctica adventure, and any scene with Alice was great. The concept of this novel is a clever idea. The progression of the plot is just escapism at increasingly extreme levels for Quentin. He tries to convince himself that he’ll finally be happy once another one of his wishes is fulfilled. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t happen. The Magicians gets especially interesting in the final quarter, when threads from the beginning start to connect. When the writing is good, it’s clever and witty and easy to read. With more sincere and consistent storytelling, more earnest emotion paired with this cheeky writing style, The Magicians by Lev Grossman could be stellar. Unfortunately, it never quite reaches that level.

the magicians

the magicians

the magicians

the magicians

the magicians

the magicians

the magicians

the magicians

Sofia Mauro

Sofia is a lifelong lover of literature, especially fantasy and other speculative fiction. When she isn't reading or writing, she enjoys playing board games, baking, listening to music, playing violin and piano, and watching birds.

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