The Magicians [book review]

While in Melbourne, I heard a recommendation for Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and the next day, while checking the Melbourne Writers Festival bookstore, found the book (rather than the Kristoff volume I was seeking), bought it, and read it within a few days.

‘Brakebills will remind readers of Hogwarts, though with more illicit fondling. Grossman has written what could crudely be labeled a Harry Potter for adults.” , NYT

So is this an Harry Potter for adults?! First, I think Harry Potter can be read by adults (if I qualify as adult!). This remark presumably means the book should not be read by young readers, maybe, due to recurrent sex and alcohol consumption, plus some drugs and an overall depressive tone.

Back to Harry Potter, there is the same magical boarding school feeling, even though it is located in upstate New York on the Hudson river.  And not in Scotland. With an equivalent to Quidditch, an evil magician, exams, surly teens, one or two love triangles, &tc. If in a more modern and American way. The difference with Harry Potter is that it also doubles as Narnia! A Narnia eventually turned wrong and sour, but nonetheless a strong similarity of stories and ideas. Of course, this parallel could be seen as an attempt at deconstruction, exhibiting the inconsistencies in the original novels, but it is so subtle it does not feel like it. There are the same encounters with sentient animal creatures, who never reappear after, the same call for Kings and Queens, as in Narnia. This lack of depth at exploring the connections between Harry Potter, Narnia and even some aspects of the Wheel of Time is frustrating in that something great could have come of it. And then… then… comes the worst literary trick in my list, the call to a subterranean quest with endless monsters and accidents! (I obviously exclude Tolkien’ Moria episode from this list!!!) Concluding with the evil character dumping information in the last battle to explain missing bits and pieces in the story.

So, in conclusion, not such a magical book, even though I read it within a few days thanks to my 39 hour trip back to Paris. The Magicians remains too teeny for my taste, hearing self-deprecating depressive monologues occurs way too often to make the main character congenial, and the story has not enough depth or structure to be compelling. A reviewer rightly pointed out it feels like fandom fiction. Rather than a universe on its own. (As for instance Aaronovitch’ Rivers of London series.)

4 Responses to “The Magicians [book review]”

  1. Dan Simpson Says:

    I’m going to deviate from the consensus and say that I enjoyed these books. (Teenager-y and derivative are a genre staple)

    It’s better as a trilogy. You can make a good argument that Julia is secretly the main character. And it’s definitely a deconstruction of a certain type of narrative. But the problem with deconstructing is that you often follow the style too well).

    Basically I thought it was flawed as a trilogy but I enjoyed it more than I didn’t

    Gaiman’s prose annoys me. Only ones of his I’ve loved were Sandman.

  2. drewancameron Says:

    ps. If you haven’t read American Gods by Neil Gaiman you should bump that one to the top of your reading list; it’s an old one but my colleague, Sam Bhatt, just finished reading it which allowed me to enjoy a long discussion of its plot
    twists & turns.

    • Ah, I have tried American Gods and just could not read more than a third… I usually have an adverse (if irrational) reaction to fantasy stories that are too much immersed in our current world, which may be a symptom of a deeper psychological condition!, but this book was one of those cases. To the point I have not tried another Gaiman’s book since then!

  3. drewancameron Says:

    I read this one and had a similar reaction: it was so derivative as to suggest a parody but instead of descending into comedy it takes itself entirely seriously! The swan sex scene was the only ‘interesting’ part of the book for me because it’s just so bizarre. I must say I was surprised to see it has two sequels.

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