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The Magicians ~ Lev Grossman

July 25, 2009

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Publisher: Viking Books

416 pages

ISBN: 9780670020553

Listen: I have to say something before I go any further in this review.

The Magicians is not Harry Potter.

I repeat: This is NOT Harry Potter.


You walk into class on the first day of a creative writing course and in front of you, there is an exercise prompt, scrawled on the chalkboard:

A moderately current teenager enrolls in a school of magic whose existence, heretofore was unknown by the protagonist…

Now, say, perhaps that there are twenty kids in the class and two of them are our very own Lev Grossman and J. K. Rowling. Undoubtedly, on the spectrum of such things, the teacher will collect twenty very different stories.

As the “Three ____ walked into a bar” joke has endless offspring, the idea above has certainly created myriad manifestations, none remotely resembling the other.

That said, this diversion is not a bad thing.

Grossman does a service to an older audience, an audience that, contrary to other reviews, does not need to carry a degree from Hogwarts.

Brooklyn boy, Quinton Coldwater is bound for college with his two best friends,. The trio is comprised of reasonably intelligent overachievers worrying about nothing more important than acing their Princeton interviews and dealing with the biting cold, eternal grime and banal limbo of upper-middle class New York.

In the blink of an eye, Coldwater’s path is completely turned on its side as he finds himself an incoming First Year on the campus of Brakebills College for Magic Pedagogy. Mirroring many a journey through a former A-student’s college experience, Quinton, a recently big, smart fish in a little pond, is thrown smack dab into the middle of a very large sea of much more driven, intelligent kids. The stress is as palpable as it might be amidst a cutthroat Harvard study-session as the course load is rigorous and nothing at all as carefree and easy as a lover of magic might assume from the outside.

Inevitably, villains, damsels, and rescue missions work their way into the story although, always to a lesser extent than they appear in many of the works Grossman alludes to. This is a darker, subtler magic, more sinister but also more intellectual.

I found the first book, or about half of the physical book, a little bit tedious. I know that it is supposed to be representative of an incredibly strenuous academic course load and therefore, not supposed to be light and fun. While I get this, there is a bit of a wet blanket feel to the entire four years devoted to Brakebills. It is not that it is all that unpleasant; it’s just a bit like listening to Riders on the Storm: it’s entertaining enough to wander through but it never rises above a common, rolling monotony. I think it came from Grossman attempting to shove four or five years into two hundred pages. Because of the tight space, it seemed like nothing went on at school, as there was little to no room to elaborate in such a short space. It might have served the book and readers better to revisit Brakebills in memory or flashbacks.

The pace does pick up, perhaps to an uncomfortable speed at moments, as soon as our focal crew graduates. Somewhere between books two and four (there are five all together), there is a definite switch in underlying message. I think that the beginning was mostly to setup the questions tackled in the last half.

Inevitable questions of purpose and life intention are brought up. These themes were right up my alley as a Gen Y-er and a lover of most things existential. More than any similarity (which I repeat is slim) to Harry Potter, I think readers in my age bracket will latch onto the idea of ephemeral and elusive happiness.

I enjoyed the book, over all, and I am glad that I did not end up abandoning it during the dark soggy hours of the first half. It is a rewarding read but certainly not a quick one and it lacks the energy of things it is compared to, although it makes up in philosophy what it lacks in momentum.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 28, 2009 11:14 am

    Can NOT wait! 🙂

  2. August 11, 2009 3:03 pm

    Ahh, you’re right. :/ It’s quite far from Harry Potter, especially how school is depicted. (In HP, school is kewl!) But I’ve been dying to read something like this, so I’ll definitely check this out. Thanks for the review!

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