The Magicians (Magicians #1)

Read:  2017

Author:  Lev Grossman

Published:  2009

Genre:  Fantasy

Pages:  432 (paperback)

Selected By:  Elle Tea

Elle Tea’s Score:  Scoring It Was OK Book

“Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable.  A high school math genius, he’s secretly fascinated with a series of children’s fantasy novels set in a magical land called Fillory, and real life is disappointing by comparison.  When Quentin is unexpectedly admitted to an elite, secret college of magic, it looks like his wildest dreams have come true.  But his newfound powers lead him down a rabbit hole of hedonism and disillusionment, and ultimately to the dark secret behind the story of Fillory.  The land of his childhood fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he ever could have imagined.”  – from the Amazon summary.

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Elle Tea’s Review

Quentin Coldwater is such an asshole.

There.  I said it.  Got that off my chest.  Whew.

Don’t get me wrong – I really enjoy the television series, which is loosely based on this trilogy (or possibly just based on the first book, I’m not sure since the TV series did jump a bit wildly across storylines), but in the end they represent two very different worlds.

“For just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is.  Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life.  Stop waiting.  This is it: there’s nothing else.  It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.”

I find the show, at least the first season (and the second season thus far), to be quite entertaining with very few lulls; it’s 3/4 Harry Potter plus 1/4 The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Of course, it’s a lot of information and stunning visuals all crammed into one measly little hour, but it’s a pretty nifty show to feed that mid-week fantasy craving.

The book, however, differs greatly from the TV series.  To begin with, it’s more 3/4 The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, a touch of Harry Potter, and a huge dollop of Sandman Slim to liven things up a bit.  It’s much more grown-up than even the television version, with near-constant references to binge-drinking, destructive drug use, and casual sex, so be aware of that if you settle in to give this a go – this is not a fantasy series for kiddies.

Initially, I found the differences between the television show and the original material from the novel refreshing: Julia’s entire tortured, pathetic, two-faced existence is practically nonexistent, relegated to a single instance of begging and punctuated by a brief emergence as a master magician; Alice’s motivation to attend school is not hinged entirely on the mysterious disappearance of her brother near a suicide fountain – in fact, there is no “suicide fountain” of which to speak and instead a really nifty sort of window between worlds; Penny has a much larger, much more important role in the book and is not in any way motivated or effected by a girlfriend; the trips to Fillory are a bit more frequent and productive than those of the TV show and feature a more diverse cast of characters (plus Ember is actually a ram rather than a thick-set satyr and has a much more Aslan sort of feel about him); the mystery of the affair between a Professor and student clicks into place within the story rather than being fleetingly mentioned and never referred to again; and yes, there is more drug use and drinking than in the televised version, but it makes sense considering these young people possess extraordinary gifts that set them forever apart from the rest of the world.

In a way, fighting was just like using magic.  You said the words, and they altered the universe.  By merely speaking you could create damage and pain, cause tears to fall, drive people away, make yourself feel better, make your life worse.

But then, in a horrible twist, there are things about the television show that I prefer quite a bit more than the novel.  The biggest issue was the characters: I hate Julia in the TV show, because when compared to the magicians and students of Brakebills she is clearly a self-serving, self-centered brat; the problem is that as happy as I was to see her character appear less in the novel, her presence is replaced by an entire cast of miniature Julias.  Also, I absolutely adore Hale Appleman’s version of Eliot, but in comparison the Eliot of this novel is boringly sedate; where Appleman’s Eliot is a combination of torment, self-deprecating humor, awesome fashion sense, and 100% concentrated fabulousness, the Eliot of the book is content to throw out a one-liner now and again in exchange for free booze and pills.  Also, unlike the television series where the school serves as center-stage for most of the magical melodrama, a majority of the book does not take place at Brakebills University at all; instead, the school is relevant for less than half of the novel, at which point the children grow up and go out into the real world where they proceed to drink, pop, and snort themselves through their early twenties.  Again, their drug use and tendency to drink themselves positively stupid is not a big deal – it makes sense in the grand scheme of things, but after a while it gets pretty old; these twenty-something men and women are out loose in the world with magic available to them at will and have seemingly limitless access to a never-ending bank account, yet they spend all their time whining about their lack of direction and the overall unfairness of their lives while moping and drinking and screwing.

Which brings me to Quentin Coldwater.  For fans of the TV show, Quentin begins as a relatively familiar fantasy-underdog character: he’s shy, awkward, and socially inept, all while secretly holding the title of magical wunderkind.  The Quentin of the SyFy series isn’t my favorite character (Eliot FTW!!!), but he’s at least understandable and a little lovable in his own quirky way.  But the Quentin of the novel doesn’t so much grow up as he does grow angrier and more self-important with each passing page, and to be perfectly honest, I really, really don’t like him.  The powerful magic for which he was lauded at Brakebills seems diminished once he goes out into the real world, where it has no practical application or use, and he is constantly overshadowed by (surprise, TV fans!) the bookish and studious Penny, who I like a lot in the novel and for whom I felt quite a bit more sympathy.  The dynamic between these two characters is better defined in the TV show, which has Penny as the more aggressive, angst-ridden character and portrays Quentin as the more passive, accepting one with a love for Fillory that borders on the obsessive.  In the novel, their dislike for one another makes no sense: while at school, Penny is clearly a punk-rocking misfit, and he disappears after graduation… only to reappear later on with the secret to unlocking Fillory.  Rather than being pleased with this turn of events and at the prospect of a potentially grand adventure, Quentin is angry and grows progressively angrier as Penny reveals that he is better prepared for their fantastical destination: he’s read up on the books and has prepared himself to blend in with the natives and their expectations.

And the antagonist of the show, the dreadful Beast whose presence seems to be always off to the side, just out of range of the cameras?  The battle for supremacy of first Brakebills and then Fillory, and possibly the world?  Yeah, that’s all nonexistent: the Beast appears at the beginning of the story, where he wanders around a classroom for hours and hours, quietly tormenting the students (and boring me for almost an entire chapter) before disappearing until nearly the very end.  Which makes Quentin’s only real enemy…

Nobody, really.  I guess you could say himself, if you were feeling poetic about the whole thing.

“We have reached the point where ignorance and neglect are the best we can hope for in a ruler.”

Maybe The  Magicians is intended to make some deep statement about the youth of today.  Quentin & Co. are depressed and in pain – the novel makes it very clear from the beginning that the source of their magic is their suffering, and they turn that agony into something powerful and fantastic.  But unlike The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and Harry Potter – and, yes, even Sandman Slim – Grossman’s characters learn absolutely nothing.  Their deception and lies and all of the ways they use each other and abuse the creatures of Fillory are rewarded – not with the much-needed lesson that life isn’t fair but still one perseveres and eventually may rise above the muck to help others, oh no, no, my friends – they are rewarded with crowns and the keys to the kingdom.  Except the one character who tried to do the right thing and went to Fillory for the love of the place and the idea of adventure – that character got their damn hands eaten off.

I think if I hadn’t seen the television show I might have liked this book better.  Though I think if I’d read the book first, I’d not have watched the show for fear that it would be too much like the novel.  In a fit of need-to-know after Season One wrapped, I bought this entire trilogy, but I’m sad to say that The Magicians was so disappointing that I won’t be reading the other two novels (The Magician King and The Magician’s Land).  This time, I’m perfectly content to let some network spoon-feed me a more palatable, much prettier version of a story; if I want to see self-indulgent assholes crown themselves kings, I can just turn on the news.

Elle read the Amazon Kindle version of this novel.

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