The Magicians: a fantasy novel of wonder without sentimentality

Lev Grossman's novel The Magicians may just be the most subversive, gripping and enchanting fantasy novel I've read this century. Quentin Coldwater is a nerdy, depressed, high-achieving Brooklyn kid who finds himself hijacked from his Princeton interview and whisked away to Brakebills Academy, a school of magic upstate on the Hudson. He passes the entrance exam and begins his education as a wizard.

This is a familiar-sounding setup, but Grossman's extremely clever hack on the fantasy novel is in his complete lack of sentimentality about magic. Quentin has lived his whole life waiting to be taken to an imaginary magic kingdom ("Fillory," a thinly veiled version of Narnia) but he quickly discovers that real magic -- like stage magic -- is about an endless grind of numbing practice in the hopes of impressing someone -- anyone. All of Brakebills, from the faculty to the student body, is broken in some important way, and Quentin is no exception. In a place of scintillating minds and bottomless commitment to craft, Quentin's life is not substantially better than it is in Brooklyn. Brakebills isn't Hogwarts (at one point, the narrator notes that magic wands aren't used at Brakebills, being regarded as a kind of embarrassing prosthesis -- like a sex toy for magic).

Quentin's cycle -- mundane, magic student, magician in the world, questing adventurer -- serves as a scalpel that slices open the soft, sentimental belly of the fantasy canon, from Tolkien to Lewis to Baum, but still (and this is the fantastic part), it manages to be full of wonder. Wonder without sentimentality. Wonder without awe.

Grossman is a hell of a pacer, and the book rips along, whole seasons tossed out in a single sentence, all the boring mortar ground off the bricks, so that the book comes across as a sheer, seamless face that you can't stop yourself from tumbling down once you launch yourself off the first page. This isn't just an exercise in exploring what we love about fantasy and the lies we tell ourselves about it -- it's a shit-kicking, gripping, tightly plotted novel that makes you want to take the afternoon off work to finish it.

It must run in the family; Lev is the identical twin brother of Austin "Soon I Will Be Invincible" Grossman, another one-of-a-kind novelist.

I read the paper edition of The Magicians, but I'm delighted to see that there's an unabridged audio edition on DRM-free CDs. This is the kind of fairy story I could seriously dig having read aloud to me the second time around (and I don't think I'll be able to read this one just once).

The Magicians: A Novel


  1. I recently downloaded the audio version of The Magicians on iTunes and found it completely absorbing. I loved the gritty, adult touches that many a fantasy novel originally aimed at children usually lacks– sex, chemical abuse, post-college malaise, to name a few. I also loved the little jabs it makes at other fantasy series, like HP, such as Quentin’s group of friends at Breakbill’s joking about putting on their Quidditch robes as they begrudgingly set off to play their own (non-flying) magical school game. I’ve been a huge HP fan for years and highly recommend this book for any fantasy fans that might appreciate some more hardcore fare.

  2. I bought this on a whim, despite a not-so-glowing review from the NYT book review, and my impressions were not at all similiar to Cory’s. It is a very quick read, and while the author does a good job crafting the universe in which the story takes place, the story itself and the characters didn’t elicit any emotional response. I totally understand why they put “Author of the International Best-seller Codex” on the cover – this book is a beach read for people looking for something very light.

  3. Practically all the booksellers at my store read this book right after it came out, and we all loved it. It’s such a new take on the fantasy that we’re used to and that we all grew up with, and the idea that magic can’t really fix anything has never been portrayed quite so realistically.

  4. I was really disappointed in this book. I thought the plotting Cory was impressed with was horrible, I’m fine with jumping forward in a story, but I thought it came at the expense of character development. Grossman does a lot of telling instead of showing. The climax of the book had some interesting ideas, but I didn’t care about the characters at that point since they had morphed into caricatures of who they were at the beginning. Bummer.

  5. Gee I could see Darth Sidious being really happy about books with no wonder, awe or sentimentality, Cory. There’s a place for these things- since our lives are generally lacking in them these stories provide good escape from the monotony. The image of the small hobbit fighting off the demonic Shelob creature from Tolkien is like pure dream symbolism for the kinds of encounters we all face, albeit in simpler form. I agree it’s good for books like this to be published- all sides should be represented, but only a Sith could cheer for the fall of wonder. ;)

  6. I downloaded the audio book based on the preview clip and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I’m a person who grew up with exactly Quentin’s wish and identified with it a lot in that respect. Perhaps it doesn’t work as well for people who are not already familiar with the fantasy book world.

    Also, I was sort of surprised that it’s considered a “children’s” book by the audio publisher. There’s a fair amount of sex in it; I’d at least classify it as Y.A.

  7. I found it quite an engaging read. I did wish to see some clearer ties to contemporary culture (having the characters watching BSG or something like that.) But that’s quibbling.

  8. “…extremely clever hack”

    Cory, I’m a fan and all, but seriously, you need to remove “hack” word from your vocabulary. It’s overused (both on Boing Boing and on the interwebs in general) and it just gives a really bad connotation–especially since it’s a derisive term for a writer.

    1. When people get irked about the meaning of a word, it’s often because the meaning of the word is beginning to change from the one they understand.

      A couple of teachers at my school used to get very upset about the new meaning of the word ‘gay’, it ruined the nice old meaning, no other word could ever quite replace it, etc.

      In the past couple of years teachers and others have been fulminating about, guess what, a new meaning of the word ‘gay'; meaning half hearted, inadequate or boring.

      1. Piers, while I don’t agree with your assessment, I find it disturbing you would use “gay” as an example. Particularly since it’s used often as a homophobic slur. You may believe it to mean “half hearted, inadequate or boring” but that stems directly from its history of being employed as an insult. When it’s said derisively, it’s never benign.

        1. Thank you cinemajay for saying exactly what I wanted to say. People who should know better are using the gay to describe anything they despise, and claim not to be homophobic (or just plain bigots) because they weren’t referring to a person. Just like that idiot politician from South Carolina who the other day used the term “penny-pinching Jew” and claimed that it was a compliment.

          Ha! The captcha phrase this time was “Edward Vole”, sounds like the name of a kid’s book!

    2. you need to remove “hack” word from your vocabulary.

      Giving writing advice to a best-selling author: priceless.

      1. Since when did anyone become so lofty as to avoid advice from the public. Our president endures it daily–and often learns from it.

  9. People seem to be stuck on the story or characters, when in my opinion, it was the deconstruction of the entire genre that was pretty fantastic.

  10. I listened to the CD version of The Magicians during a work trip that involved flying into Las Vegas, driving to Ridgecrest, CA, staying there for a week, then driving back to Vegas through Death Valley .

    I’d be hard pressed to think of a more suitable locale to be in while “reading” this book. The feelings of loss, loneliness and absurdity fit perfectly with being the only human for miles around.

    Mark Brahmall does a wonderful job giving voice to all the characters, and the 17 + hours flew by. The ending left me a bit flat, but, I suppose, that is rather the point.

    (Also, thanks for mentioning that the author’s brother wrote “Soon I Will Be Invincible.” I enjoyed reading (the dead tree version of) that greatly. Must be one fun family!)

  11. “Without sentimentality” until the last page, which I suppose I can’t really discuss without spoilers (in two senses of ‘to spoil’).

    The vast majority of this work is a skillful take-down of portal fantasy and special destinies, and it does about half of the work towards building something more sustaining in the place of those old rotten structures. It was the latter more than the former that kept me turning pages frantically to the end, and I don’t know whether I’m happy to have read it or sad to have seen it balk and give up.

  12. I haven’t read the book yet, may or may not. My question is this: What’s wrong with a little sentimentality? Why is “unsentimental” always used to praise works of fiction? I’m not saying that every book should be a Hallmark card, but tenderness is a part of our emotional palette. Wht can’t it be used in “literature”?

  13. I did really, really like this book overall but the ending was only great, not totally awesome like the rest of the book. It’s kind of like a “realistic” lit-fic version of the Harry Potter books, and I really like what we see of how magic works and the dedication and talent that it takes to learn it.

    Neat to hear he’s related to the SIWBI guy.

  14. I’m sorry, @scaramanga9, but a novel is supposed to tell a story about characters. The deconstruction may be interesting, but without character it becomes meaningless.

    Granted, I haven’t read it yet, but from the sound of it the only good part of the novel is the deconstruction of the fantasy genre, removing the sentimentality that normally goes along with it. Correct me if I’m mistaken, but didn’t the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant do the same thing? It’s a world full of awe and wonder, but it’s horrible and brutal and depressing. And it has actual character development.

    1. Anonymous, I’ve read plenty of novels that weren’t exclusively character-driven and enjoyed them immensely. And I’m not so sure that a novel is “supposed” to do anything but convey a narrative/series of fictional events, period.

      As for what you’ve heard, add to that the opinion that the characters themselves were not as bad as they’ve been made out to be. I personally enjoyed this book in spite of (or perhaps because of) its depressing nature.

      On another note: I rather hope there isn’t a sequel, can’t authors let their works be without persistently drawing them out?

      1. On another note: I rather hope there isn’t a sequel, can’t authors let their works be without persistently drawing them out?

        It’s more of a publishing imperative: series sell, so some of these folks wouldn’t be “published authors” at all if they didn’t have the prospect of a series of increasingly bad books to sell to the credulous masses. Ah, genre publishing!

    2. munging together replies to both Anonymice:

      Tastes differ on what makes for good plot and good characterization. For me, both of those aspects worked, in spades, until — really, until the last few paragraphs. Grossman is writing a story that dodges in and out of the genre expectations of both dyed-in-the-wool fantasy dorks (here I raise my hand) and the oft-maligned (and oft-maligning) “literary fiction” crowd. I’ve spent enough time dabbling in the latter that I appreciate the elements he pulls in from it, even if they frustrate my expectations about how characters in fantasy behave and how fantasy plots move forward.

      How does this relate to sentimentality? On the whole, I agree with the point that literature shouldn’t always have to be about the ugly parts of humanity. On the other hand, some fantasy has held on to certain blind sentimentalities about children and teenagers and how they relate to power or about finding one’s grand purpose in life. The Magicians manages to both pay sincere homage and cast a skeptical eye towards those traditions. IMHO, the Thomas Covenant books set out to piss on those sentiments. That’s all well and good, but I think Grossman’s take is more humane. For all of my disappointment at the very last page, I would recommend this book a thousand times over any Donaldson I’ve read.

  15. Just finished the book, which I quite enjoyed overall. I think the first half is much stronger than the second half, with some very sharp insights into the dangers of having too much, too soon. When the crew gets to Fillory (read: Narnia) the book loses much of the tight character focus that makes the first half work so well.

    I agree the ending feels tacked on and unnecessary. Given the sequel promises to take us back to Fillory I’m not so enthusiastic to read it. The heavy lifting from the Narnia books feels more lazy than meta, imo.

  16. “What’s wrong with a little sentimentality? Why is ‘unsentimental’ always used to praise works of fiction? … tenderness is a part of our emotional palette. Why can’t it be used in ‘literature'”?

    Usually “sentimental”/”sentimentality” refer to cheap substitutes for emotion and tenderness — tear-jerking, as opposed to … well, the only phrase that comes to mind is “honest emotion.”

    Anyway, that’s the nickel explanation.

  17. Thanks for recommending this–I got it for Christmas and devoured over the space of a few days. It’s fascinating to me how the book matches the reader’s plot expectations with the character’s fantasies–you spent a significant part of the book waiting for something to happen, and so does Quentin… and when it does happen, you regret it, like he does.

    I get what people are saying about the last page of the book; to me it wasn’t even that, just one word in the last sentence: “flew”. It gave that last moment a sense of hope and wonder that the book hadn’t earned, had in fact spent its entire length destroying. I didn’t mind what happened, just that the author seemed to think it was a good thing, and not bittersweet, the next stage of the continuing tragedy that was Quentin’s hope.

    Still, with that exception, The Magicians is one of the best books I’ve ever read, an absolute joy to read and, I’m sure in the future, to reread.

  18. It had no real joy in it. If I want to read something with no joy, I have plenty of choices. As a deconstruction it is really clever, and I can understand the fascination an author would have for it…but I couldn’t, in good conscience, recommend it to a someone who is simply looking for an entertaining read.

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