I was intrigued by the first third of The Magicians, hated the second third, and the final third was weird and I’m not sure it was enough to redeem the book from the middle part. The first part is dark Harry Potter, the second is existential and dirty in a creepy-bad way, and the last is Narnia gone to hell. Overall, The Magicians reminded me of The Secret History (which I liked parts of but overall didn’t like for many of the same reasons I had trouble with The Magicians).
At first the basic plot is simple enough. Quentin is a genius math student but apathetic about life. He is invited and get accepted into a secret magic school in New York called Brakebills. Magic is difficult and not fun to study, and Quentin’s schoolmates are all unusual. Apparently, only discontented geniuses have the magical ability to get into Brakebills, which may be part of the reason most of them take so long to realize the world does not owe them (reason 1 why many characters become unsympathetic quickly); they’re all too much alike (problem 2). I actually did like this part of the book, because unlike in Harry Potter, magic does not solve a lot of problems and it requires a lot of technical, detailed study and practice. I also liked the range of characters and how they interacted. Quentin even makes some friends, including Eliot and Alice. Eliot is the social one, and Alice is shy but brilliant.
Studies progress into Year 4 at Brakebills, which is where things get bad both in terms of character experience and reading experience. I had to put the book down for a few days part way into this section because it was getting hard to read. The students go to another campus, Brakebills South, for a while and while there, they seem to lose all interest in life and go so numb all they can do is have random meaningless sex to distract themselves from studying. When they graduate, this continues with the addition of drinking and drugs. This feeling of ennui sticks with Quentin, whom I stopped liking at this point. I kept going because the story actually genuinely is well-written.
My problem with this part of the story is first that it seems like the story is being dark and creepy for no reason, and second if this is going to be that kind of story, there needs to be some reason to keep going, like a likeable or totally hate-able character. Quentin is not a reason, and he’s the main character. He’s always an aimless character, but he never outgrows it the way everyone else does by the end. Alice, who has become his girlfriend during the Brakebills South section, keeps up her studies and realizes too late that Quentin will never be satisfied with her or anything else, Eliot realizes that he needs friends and family (he tells Quentin this in a letter in the final section) and even Penny who seems like kind of a loser during their school days grows up enough to find himself a goal in life.
Penny reappears in the story after graduation and he is the one who gives the gang hope for finding meaning in life by revealing that he has discovered the Fillory, a magical land of novels that fascinated Quentin and several others since childhood, is in fact real. The third section is the expedition to Fillory where (naturally) all is not as it seemed from the novels. The old gods have been overthrown and it turns out that the evil mastermind is a character who got lost as child but really didn’t get lost so much as wanted to stay forever in Fillory. The magicians battle the villain and win but they lose some of their own in the process. Quentin’s reactions once again highlight that he refuses to deal with reality in any way and blames everyone. Even though he says he blames himself too, the way he acts and some of his thoughts show that he refuses to face the consequences of what he has done, not just in Fillory, but even before.
I really wanted to like The Magicians but I can’t. After the first part of the story, Quentin the main character becomes so unlikable that it’s impossible to get past that. Yes magic is difficult and can bring tragedy, but the other characters all find ways of dealing with the tragedy and the potential lack of interest in real life after school. Quentin does not change at all. He remains a bored, entitled, unsympathetic, immature jerk. I know people who think that Quentin is just very sensitive and does not recover well from trauma. While this may be true by the end of the story, I just don’t care about him anymore. The reappearance of his childhood friend Julia at the end presents an opportunity for redemption but given Quentin’s record up to this point, I’m afraid it’ll take the rest of the series for him to grow up, if that ever happens.