Posted on July 28, 2009 by Monica Valentinelli
In fantasy, there are books that have high adventure and engaging characters; there are others that focus on the journey of one character through his (or her) trials and tribulations. The Magicians written by Lev Grossman, author of Codex, is a little bit of both.
When I received The Magicians, the first thing I noticed was the back cover. Why? Well, there were no less than six recommendations by authors including George R.R. Martin and Kelly Link. Normally I’m a bit skeptical about books (or movies) that are so highly praised, because immediately my expectations as a reader are a bit elevated. “Wow,” I had thought to myself. “This book better be that good.”
Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed.
The Magicians is a fantasy book that you’d expect to sit on the shelves between C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, but it’s also a coming-of-age story much like Huckleberry Finn or The Catcher in the Rye. I say “coming-of-age” even though the main character Quentin Coldwater is seventeen, because Quentin – like so many teenagers nowadays – doesn’t find his true self until he lives through college. This emphasis on his personal journey is woven into the fantasy story so delicately, that the book is not what I would consider to be mainstream – this is a piece of literature.
I feel that calling The Magicians literature is important, because this is not a light read. Sure, there is a fantasy story related to magic and a (supposed) fictional setting named Fillory, but there are moments that are very deep and vast, sentences that may make you pause as they did me. This is a story about what it’s like to want to belong, to know what you are, and to be okay with your dreams. The Magicians has characters I liked (Alice) and some characters I didn’t (Janet), but in the end the were real. You’ll find characters that are gay or straight, male or female, mature or not. The students in this book have sex, they drink, they experiment, they study and they fight at a secret college called Brakebills. Open to a select few who could pass the rigorous examinations, Quentin ditches the world he believes is ordinary for the promise of something better. Unfortunately, even that world just isn’t good enough because he learns the truth about magic; it is hard to accomplish and even more dangerous. Magic in the world of The Magicians comes with a terrible price that is both tangible and intangible.
As I’ve alluded to here, there is quite a bit of duality in the story, which is necessary to support Quentin’s fascination with his favorite set of childhood stories set in the world of Fillory. Like many of us who might have believed Middle Earth or Narnia or even Hogwarts was a real place, Quentin’s love and fascination of the books from his childhood carries with him to Brakebills. The Magicians is broken out into multiple books, to help the reader follow Quentin from his first year in the school to graduation and then…to Fillory.
What happens in Fillory and Brakebills is not a neat and tidy story that you can tuck away in your pocket and smile about later – there are dark things that happen in both places that affect the characters in strange ways. After all, would you be able to live in the same, boring world after you realized magic was possible? Could you date a friend or see eye-to-eye with your family after your mind has been battered and broken by the things it saw?
Because The Magicians deals with the question “What does magic cost?” so thoroughly, I feel that it ended up reading more as a survival story rather than a light and pleasant adventure. I found myself wondering not only how the characters would physically survive, but what they might do with their newfound “gifts.” With so many questions and so much confusion centered upon Quentin – who is irrevocably changed by his experiences – it will be interesting to see where the series ends, for this book can (and does) stand entirely on its own.
In conclusion, The Magicians is what I would consider a work of literature and an exemplary piece of modern dark fantasy. Not for the squeamish, keep in mind that there are some adult themes if you’re interested in picking up this book.
Review by Monica Valentinelli
The Magicians is available to pre-order at Amazon.com.