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Revisiting The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Revisiting The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Book Name: The Magicians
Author: Lev Grossman
Publisher(s): Viking
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: August 11, 2009

I recently re-read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, the 2009 novel that some ham-fistedly referred to as a “Harry Potter for adults.” A television series based on the book premieres January 25 on SyFy in the US, and I still haven’t read The Magician’s Land (the final book in the trilogy) so I figured the time was ripe to head back to Brakebills. I’m glad I did.

According to Goodreads, I first read The Magicians in March 2012 and I gave it three stars. I’m not a big Goodreads reviewer, but as I tried to log my re-read (sidenote: why is Goodreads so awful when it comes to tracking and counting re-reads?!?!?) I noticed that I had typed up a few words about the book. I’m paraphrasing now, because in trying to log the re-read it erased my old review, but I wrote something to the effect of, “I didn’t particularly connect with the characters, and at times it seemed like there was no plot, but I found myself strangely fascinated by the book. I enjoyed it, I’ll read the sequel, but I don’t think I’ll ever read them again.”

I was wrong.

The Magicians is one of those books that is undeniably flawed, but perhaps not to its detriment. Much like the form of a poem is as important as the verse, I think the flawed nature of Grossman’s novel is very fitting considering the story being told. The Magicians is about flawed people and their flawed decisions. That the novel has cracks and warts seems fitting. There is an artistic cohesion to The Magicians that would have been ruined by more polish.

The Harry Potter comparisons are lazy, but not unwarranted. It is difficult not to make the comparison when the book is about a boy’s journey from a mundane existence to a life of magic vis-à-vis a heretofore hidden school for magicians. But Brakebills and Hogwarts couldn’t be more different, and Harry and Quentin Coldwater are not cut from the same cloth.

Harry Potter is, ultimately, a heroic figure. He’s what we strive to be. Quentin Coldwater in The Magicians is what most of are. He’s a mixed up, navel gazing kid with a severe smarter-than-thou complex and a chip on his shoulder. His POV is so self-centered and self-absorbed that you can easily conclude that there is nothing there to like. On the second read, though, my opinion changed. Grossman has done a masterful job of taking the inner dialogue of a high school overachiever and turning it into a POV. Quentin’s depth can’t be found in the pages—it only comes to the fore when the reader acknowledges that he or she has been the same miserable kid that Quentin has been. Who among us would want our inner dialogue turned into the POV of a novel? Particularly starting at age 17? Not me, that’s for sure. Quentin made me uncomfortable because the things I disliked about him were things that I could relate to, having had similar thoughts myself. That realization didn’t come until my second pass through the novel, but when it did I gained a deeper appreciation for Grossman’s writing and character work.

I had a similar reaction to the plot. The things that irked me the first time—the pacing, the subplots and “B” stories that went nowhere—didn’t bother me at all. Some of my lack of frustration stemmed from knowing what was going to happen, but the pace at which the story (which careens from meandering to breakneck and back again at seemingly random intervals) unfolds feels natural. Those last years of high school and first years of college are messy times for even the best of us. We’re all hopped up on a heady cocktail of optimism, stupidity and fear. The way we feel about—and go through—life can change at the drop of a hat. The Magicians captures that essence and reflects it back on the reader. It is a strange sensation to experience at 38.

I’m looking forward to the SyFy series, and to finally finishing The Magician’s Land. If you haven’t read The Magicians, you really should. I’ve read it twice and I’m glad I did. Grossman has managed to capture the fine line between childhood and adulthood—between the dream-come-true and the delusion—that we’ll all struggle with at one point or another. Like most things, The Magicians isn’t perfect—but it is worthwhile.


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