Retro Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman


Lev Grossman’s grimly realistic fantasy introduces us to Quentin Coldwater – boy genius, master magician and thoroughly unlikeable git.

The Magicians

Lev Grossman


Penguin, 2009.

I hadn’t planned on revisiting this gem so soon, but it was my book club’s selection this month, so what why not?

Lev Grossman’s magnificent “Magicians Trilogy” kicks off with this misunderstood masterpiece. Often dismissed as merely “Harry Potter goes to college”, or “Harry Potter meets Narnia with sex and drugs”, the novel (and the series, which also includes The Magician King and The Magician’s Land) are more akin to Gen X literary fiction than the works of the authors with whom Grossman shares panels at conventions.

Indeed, since magical realism is a genre, I’d term The Magicians as realistic fantasy.

The basic plot follows Quentin Coldwater, a depressed and unfocused high school genius and lover of fantasy novels, especially “Fillory and Further”, a Narnia-like series he read as a child. After his Ivy League entrance interview is interrupted by the death of his interviewer, a mysterious paramedic gives Quentin the chance to fulfill his dreams, by learning magic at an exclusive college in upstate New York.

magician king

The Magician King continues the Fillory adventures of Quentin and the Brakebill’s crew and reveals the background of another character.

He is joined by his band of thoroughly unlikeable college friends Eliot, Janet, Penny and Alice each seeking some sort of fulfillment in a world where they can do anything and have anything, yet are never satisfied with their lives.

The wonder of attending a magical skill is destroyed by the monotony of meticulous practice. The whimsy of casual spells around the college, like a spell in the library that animates all the books, turns out to be a major pain in the ass.

And through this world mopes Quentin. He discovers magic is real, and sees it as an escape from his dreary life in Brooklyn. And he is unhappy. He spends his time debauching with unlimited funds, unlimited access to the finest booze and drugs, and no responsibilities. And he is unhappy. He even discovers Fillory is real and leads an adventure to free the kingdom from evil. And still he is unhappy.

Clinging to his idyllic childhood fantasies of heroes and magic and honor, he cannot even find happiness when every one of those dreams come true.

“Here he was, a freshly licensed and bonded and accredited magician. He had learned to cast spells, seen the Beast and lived, flown to Antarctica on his own two wings, and returned naked by the sheer force of his magical will. He had an iron demon in his back. Who would ever have thought he could do and have and be all those things and still feel nothing at all? What was he missing? Or was it him? If he wasn’t happy even here, even now, did the flaw lie in him? As soon as he seized happiness it dispersed and reappeared somewhere else. Like Fillory, like everything good, it never lasted. What a terrible thing to know.

I got my heart’s desire, he thought, and there my troubles began.”


The Magician’s Trilogy wraps up with this entry, which hit shelves in August.

If you are looking for an escapist fantasy, The Magicians is probably not the novel for you.

I think that is what is so polarizing about this series. Fantasy tropes are clear – the hero must grow as a person while he discovers his power, triumphs over evil and then he gets to live happily ever after.

None of that happens in The Magicians.

Quentin and his friends’ weren’t likeable, but they were real. Their pain and dissatisfaction with life are palpable and relatable — along with their desire to escape the grim reality of everyday life.

Heck, that’s one reason why people read fantasy novels — to escape the grim reality of everyday life. And when a fantasy novel introduces characters that cut close to reality without the escapism or heroics, it makes for an uncomfortable read.

But definitely not a bad one.

—Michael Senft

Buy The Magicians

About Michael Senft

I am a freelance writer and critic from Phoenix Arizona. I spent 10 years covering music, the arts and pop culture for the “Arizona Republic” before life circumstances took me away from newspaper. But I never lost my joy at writing. Or reading.
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5 Responses to Retro Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

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