The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I loved The Magicians.  As I said in an earlier entry, I had not been interested in reading it and knew basically nothing about it when I started, but I was sucked in within a few pages and read like a madwoman until I finished. It was engaging and full of magic and fantasy, but also felt grounded and modern. Calling it Harry Potter Says Motherfucker is really quite a good summary.

I don’t want to go into many details, because I went into the book blind and really enjoyed seeing things unfold, but it’s a very Harry Potter-like set up: a normal teenage boy discovers there is magic in the world and enters a magical boarding school. However, it differs from Harry Potter in some significant ways. First, it is an adult book and there is a fair bit of sex and drugs and violence. Second, things are far less cute than at Hogwarts; learning magic is presented as a real slog, like trying memorize endless complicated multiplication tables, and it’s made very clear that magic can’t fix everything and can’t make someone happy. And third, Grossman doesn’t let things end at graduation, so there’s a real exploration of leaving school and transitioning to the “real world.”

The other thing I really liked about the book was that for me the tone and the writing fell somewhere in between young adult and adult. I worry that this sounds like a criticism, and it’s not. It’s just that as much as I love (LOVE) young adult fantasy books, they tend to be somewhat heavy on the fantasy/moral lesson side of things (Narnia, Robin McKinley, Harry Potter himself). Adult fantasy books, on the other hand, are often so dark that the wonder of magic seems tamped down by the MISERY and UNENDING PAIN OF EXISTENCE. The authors that come to mind here are China Mieville and Octavia Butler; I like both those authors, but when I finish one of their books I generally feel the need for a stiff drink and some restorative episodes of How I Met Your Mother. The Magicians does a nice job of balancing the idea that parts of life are sad and miserable but other parts (including magic) are awesome. It also uses a traditional YA template (magical boarding school, parents who don’t understand, real evil in the world) to talk about the kind of adult issues that come up in every hipster literary novel: “Why do I do such stupid stuff sometimes? What am I doing with my life? What does it really mean to be an adult?”

Abigail Nussbaum, who I mentioned last week, hated this book. I don’t personally agree with her take–she seems to ascribe a lot of socio-economic and religious themes to what I read as primarily a coming-of-age story–but she makes some really interesting points. (Note that her review includes a lot of plot details, so you may want to wait to read it until after you’ve finished the book.)

And finally, while doing some Amazon research for this, I stumbled upon the page for The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. This is fairly recent children’s chapter book about a china rabbit that made me cry and cry. You think The Velveteen Rabbit is touching? That rabbit’s got nothing on Edward. This book is too much for me to ever read again, but everyone else should–it’s a surprisingly layered story about love and ego and heartbreak and personal growth. It’s got nothing to do with The Magicians, I just wanted to make sure that everyone knew it was out there.

6 comments on “The Magicians by Lev Grossman

  1. Rebecca says:

    Your last few mentions of The Magicians were interesting enough that I went ahead and put a hold on it at my local library figuring the wait list would take a few months to get through. Alas, it just came in and I still have final papers to work on.

  2. Kinsey says:

    The tyranny of the library hold list! I know it well. I am currently reading a 400-page biography of Wendy Wasserstein, despite having neither seen nor read any of her plays, because at some forgotten point I put it on my hold list and once it came in I felt obligated.

  3. Anna says:

    Ha! I’m currently trying to finish my hold book that arrived unexpectedly, too! I’ll be paying some late fees, I think. Anyway, I haven’t quite decided on The Magicians, yet, but considering my heart may never have fully healed from The Velveteen Rabbit breaking it, I’m staying good and clear of Edward Tulane.

  4. Liz says:

    I’m so glad you loved this – it’s one of my favorites in recent memory, and the sequel was also compelling. And YES on Edward Tulane. I bought it thinking that Anna would like it. It’s on the shelf still because I can’t fathom handing it to a sweet 7-year-old. I think it’s just pretending to be a children’s book.

  5. Anna says:

    Oh, man, I was in a used bookstore, browsing, and ran across a copy of Edward Tulane, and decided to just read the first few pages to see what all the fuss is about. I only put it down when I got to the point that I was afraid I would embarrass myself by crying in the middle of the bookstore. So, I’ve checked it out from the library, where I can read and cry in the privacy of my own home. So far, it is so, so good!

  6. Anna says:

    Okay, I’m returning years later to say that I’m finally reading The Magicians, and while I’m overall enjoying it quite a bit, I have one big caveat that is bothering me. I’m only two-thirds of the way through, but Quentin, the main character, is such an asshole that I can barely stand it. I’m pretty sure that the author is purposefully writing him that way, as in “look at how entitled these genius oddball teens can be”, but I’m concerned that he’s not conscious that Quentin seems to lack empathy for other people to a pathological degree to me. I just really, really dislike Quentin at this point, and I wish he’d go away and that Alice and Penny could have all the adventures without the rest of the gang.

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