For most of his life, Quentin Coldwater has used the Fillory (think Narnia) books to escape the doldrums of his everyday life. Now at the age of seventeen, Quentin has been given a chance he never dreamed he had — magic is real and he can become a magician.
Instead of heading to a mundane, normal college, he enlists at Brakebills, a university of magic and begins training. The one thing the books never included was that becoming a Magician is difficult, tedious work and nowhere nearly as exciting as depicted in the novels.
Lev Grossman’s The Magicians follows Quentin and a group of students during the course of their studies at Brakebill’s. Rather than having one book equal one year of Quentin’s life, we’re treated to the highlights of his magical training — from the semester spent in Antartica to the rather odd magical game played among his school and others. The episodic nature of Grossman’s novel ensures that Quentin and the reader never get entirely comfortable with how things are going, including when Quentin and his love interest Alice test out of some of the first year and are moved up to second year early.
The Magicians is an homage to the epic fantasy novels, shows and movies of the past all while throwing in a bit of subversion along the way. I’ve seen the series described as Harry Potter for adults and, I suppose, that’s true. But only at the most superficial level. Grossman clearly knows and has respect for her predecessors, even as he’s subverting our expectations at every turn and taking the mickey out of multiple fantasy series and tropes all at once. (I’d love to see him take a swing at Robert Jordan or George R.R. Martin).
The world of The Magicians is easy to get lost in, though I can’t necessarily say that I have much desire to enter the pages of the book like Quentin would love to jump into his beloved Fillory novels. And if you’re looking for a book where you’ll adore all the characters, you’d better keep on looking. Most of our heroes aren’t exactly likeable — they’re flawed, warped and utterly human. And maybe that’s what sets this book (and hopefully series) apart from other entries in the fantasy world.