Book Review: Lev Grossman’s The Magicians

A creative writing professor once gave my class this advice: If your readers have to ask ‘Why didn’t X just [fill in the blank]?’ then you’ve failed. If your reader can envisage a clearer, more straight forward path between conflict and resolution, then something went wrong in your plotting.

This advice came to mind last night as we finally closed the book on Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. 

I should be careful not to be too harsh. The truth is we were grossly entertained in the final 50 pages, which was a nice change from the previous 350. To my surprise, Grossman did finally pull together most of the threads in his plot, connecting details which he’d teased us with throughout the book and then dropped, seemingly irretrievably, so that he could carry on with his protagonist’s pity-party, which constituted the girth of the novel.

The reviews were right in labeling The Magicians a dark coming-of-age story, too dark, perhaps, for my taste. Light does shine through in the final pages of the story, when the listless characters realize that there’s more to life than boozing and sexing (described in embarrassing detail and in the condescending language of a 40 year-old trying to imitate hip 20 somethings) and wallowing in self-pity for being privileged and rudderless. But by the time someone finally says what we’ve all been thinking – stop mopping and choose to be happy – it’s 350 pages too late.

The inciting incident, I now realize, was simply Quentin being whisked away to Brakebills school of magic. What follows is his coming-of-age story, complete with some interesting bits (like being turned into a goose and having to survive in Antarctica with nothing but his amateur knowledge of magic) and many tedious chunks featuring love triangles, drunken nights-out and more of Quentin’s moping. Most of it reads like an episode of Gossip Girl, only a mixed cast of preps and goths. And throughout it all, you’re waiting. I was waiting for an inciting incident, because his simply going to Brakebills didn’t seem significant enough. Adventure doesn’t come until page 300 and even then the characters don’t know (and don’t think to ask) what the purpose of their mission is until 50 pages to the end.

In all fairness to Grossman, the story is not your traditional adventure-driven fantasy; it’s very much a character-driven story that happens to take place in a fantasy world. The story is actually about how typical (read: privileged), moody American teenagers develop into self-actualized adults. That whole part about battling The Beast and becoming kings and queens of Fillory? Just one chapter in The Story of Quentin.

And that chapter – by far the most interesting – only lasts 50 pages. The problem being, Quentin’s character isn’t likable enough to carry me (or, rather, make me care) for the other 350.

So did I enjoy the book? No. Do I appreciate Grossman’s satire on fantasy literature and his critique on our society’s penchant for escapism? Our wanting to believe in a fantasy world that is intrinsically better than our own rather than making our current realities better? Sure. I even appreciate his introducing a more character-driven model to the fantasy genre.

But draconian as it is, I still believe that if I’m going to live with a group of characters for 400 pages, I want to like them. Or at least find them intriguing. Even detestable. Any emotion stronger than apathy, which is what I felt toward Quentin.

I’m curious: have any of you read this book? What did you think? And if not, what are you thoughts on reading for enjoyment? Is enjoyability an important criteria in your book-selections? Or is expanding your reading horizons more important?

  1. I had a similar response to the book. I expected to enjoy reading it more than I did and was often more annoyed by Quentin and the other characters than interested in them, but I did find certain themes and ideas explored in it than I liked. It’s one of those cases where I found more to like about the book writing about it afterwards (my review here: than I did in the act of reading it.

    I’m curious about the sequel, which apparently delves more into a character that is only briefly explored in the book (Julie–hope that’s not too spoilery to mention), but can’t decide if the curiosity is enough to pick it up and spend more time with the purposeful mediocrity of how the characters choose to live lives that could be exceptional.

    • Erin said:

      Kristen – I couldn’t agree more. Your last statement sums it up particularly well. Luke and I did appreciate certain themes in the book, such as the link between language and magic that you explore in your review; the almost magical power of language to build up and tear down. We’re going to read chapter 1 of Magician King because it’s included in The Magicians, but probably won’t invest the time in reading the whole thing.
      Thanks for commenting!

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