I feel torn about whether I should write this review now, immediately upon finishing Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, or wait and allow impressions to stew for a while before writing. If forced to describe this novel in one word, I’d say intense. I don’t mean in the way that a non-stop action flick is intense; rather, I mean it never allows your brain to rest in comfortable familiarity. Grossman takes the childhood idea that magical lands are greater than mundane reality, and flips it upside down.
“Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A high school math genius, he’s secretly fascinated with a series of children’s fantasy novels set in a magical land called Fillory, and real life is disappointing by comparison. When Quentin is unexpectedly admitted to an elite, secret college of magic, it looks like his wildest dreams have come true. But his newfound powers lead him down a rabbit hole of hedonism and disillusionment, and ultimately to the dark secret behind the story of Fillory. The land of his childhood fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he ever could have imagined. . . .” —Indiebound.org
This book is unique in that the things that make it lovable are also the things that make the reader hate it. For example, it is obvious that the stories in the Fillory and Further series are modeled after The Chronicles of Narnia. At times, the commentary on familiar and fondly remembered childhood favorites is welcome, and at other times it leaves the reader feeling distinctly uncomfortable for numerous reasons–not the least of which is the unjust thought that, perhaps, the author could have been slightly more original. There are many parallels that get distressingly close to copying: the four children, the over-sized animal guide, the single-white-female villain. Then again, the reader recognizes that the author’s purpose is to make them doubly distressed when everything goes to, excuse me, shit. In this purpose, he succeeds to an alarming degree.
Another element of the novel that the reader loves to hate: characters. The players in this novel are young students of magic. They are beautiful, loose, free, and powerful. They’re magnetic and captivating. They can do whatever they want, with power literally crackling at their fingertips. They’re funny in a dry and deprecating way. At the same time, they are sophomoric and insufferable. They’re arrogant, bratty, and can’t seem to find any way to be grateful for the world laid out before their feet. One hates them in the way one hates Jay Gatsby–reluctantly but undeniably. Perhaps the only character in this novel who is remotely tolerable is Alice. As such, she is the character that gets dealt one terrible hand after another. Perhaps you are catching on to the type of novel this is.
That said, I really enjoyed reading it. In the beginning, it felt like a mash-up of Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Chronicles of Chrestomanci (a lesser-known series by Diana Wynne Jones that deserves a great deal more attention than it gets), with the notable difference of being distinctly for grown-ups. The author seems to revel in getting his reader to a place where they think they know what’s coming, and then hitting them with surprises completely out of left field. There is not one moment of this novel where I wasn’t completely taken off-guard. I even thought that perhaps I knew where most of this novel would take place. I was mistaken. I thought I knew what it was about. I was mistaken. I thought I knew who was good and who was bad. I was mistaken. It is refreshing to read a novel as unpredictable as this one.
At times, though, it is completely terrifying and slightly gross. Lev Grossman possesses several different types of genius, one of them being his ability to get under his reader’s skin. There are so many moments in this novel in which he, either by the events happening, the setting, or simply the tone, shows that nothing is quite right. Everything feels as if, one day, the walls of reality had all shifted one step over to the left. Everything is, for lack of a more descriptive word, off, and it is alarmingly eerie.
Another genius in his possession, delightful to an English nerd like me, is his vocabulary. Many words were familiar to me, but it’s rare that I have to write down and look up so many words in one novel–words like “gonfalons” (a banner or pennant, especially one with streamers, hung from a crossbar) and “palimpsest” (a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain). Elevated language and lofty vocabularies are a rare delight in the type of reading that I do, so to learn some new words was a fun challenge.
This novel deserves a confidently given 5/5. Even in its darkest and most distressing moments, it’s impossible not to enjoy it. I highly recommend for fans of Neil Gaiman, C. Robert Cargill, or Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.