The Magicians by Lev Grossman follows Quentin Coldwater through his education at Brakebills, a college for magic, and his post-graduation life. Quentin is a depressed, maladjusted jerk. He is not a wholly good person. No one at Brakebills or any magician seems to be a good person. Not Quentin’s best friend Alice and her family trauma that weighs her down to the point of never standing out, not Eliot and his ostentatious proclivity to exclude, not Janet and her razor-sharp tongue that inflicts lashes wherever she wants, not Penny and his need to fit in while never conforming, and not even Josh and his self-doubting which borders on self-loathing. Magic, it seems, is doable by people with issues.
And this makes each character so rich. One shortfall, I have found, with fantasy novels as a whole is that sometimes the fantasy aspect creeps into the characters: they are too pretty, too good, too stalwart, too assured, too skilled, etc. But not in The Magicians. Everyone is deeply flawed, yet I still root for each of them because they try to overcome their flaws to varying levels of success.
Grossman spends just the right amount of time at Brakebills, the school. He doesn’t get stuck in the trenches of a school narrative a la Harry Potter. The characters age out and graduate fairly quickly and try and find their way in the world outside of school. They are struck with the mundanity of the world, but luckily, an adventure falls into their lap that will alter the track of their lives irrevocably. No spoilers here.
One of the highlights of The Magicians is the system of magic that Grossman has crafted. It is exact and detailed. The system is rigorous. It requires finger dexterity and demands a ridiculously deep well of knowledge: planar geometry and advanced mathematics; every language you can think of, dead and alive; an awareness of the state of the world including time, phase of the moon, altitude, nearest body of water, etc. One must also be intelligent enough to know how and when to use all of these things combined. It is a fun system to read, but the magical system never outweighs the plot and the characters.
The one issue that I take with this book is that Grossman by way of the narrator uses the r-word twice. While one could attribute this to how much a jerk that Quentin is, but it is nevertheless distracting and makes me root less for the protagonist.
If you have seen the SyFy series adapted from the novels but have never read the books (The Magicians is first in a trilogy) I highly recommend that you give the books a shot. The show largely took the characters with their basic attributes and a skeleton of the plot to adapt into the show. They have the same flavor, but are very different stories.
BINGO – Adaptation