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The Magicians: The Horror of Getting What You Want

“I got my heart’s desire, he thought, and there my troubles began.” (pg.220)

Would you want, truly, to have Magic exist in our world?

When you read Narnia, did you really wish that you, instead of Lucy, walked into that wardrobe?

Do you really want to go to Hogwarts and battle dark wizards?

While some are probably shouting at the top of their lungs, “YEEEESSSSS!”, I have to make a confession.

I’m OK with magic and secret realms staying in the land of fiction.

For me, fantasy is just a tool to explore humanity. While I’m in awe at some of the worlds that authors have built, I wouldn’t want any of them to replace reality.

Partly because the potential for physical harm to my body skyrockets.

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I think having this frame of mind is one of the reasons why I adore The Magicians by Lev Grossman, a realistic tale of a young man, Quentin Coldwater, who gets everything he thought he wanted.

Quentin is obsessed with the Fillory and Further series he grew up reading, and could never fully leave that world behind (think Narnia series, just shaken up and tilted to the left). He finds normal life empty, walking through it with distant disappointment, when he stumbles upon a portal that transports him to Upstate New York. Quentin was brought there to take entrance exams to Brakebills, a very selective magic college.

Accepted to Brakebills, the depressed Quentin thinks the revelation of magic will change his outlook on life and is ready for the adventure he has always dreamed of.

But magic in this world is very different.

Magic is cold, calculating, and intellectual. The students were chosen for their aptitude due to them being all Hermione-level smart. Magic is a tough and rigorous discipline, and seen only as a tool to shape your surroundings.

When Quentin enters Brakebills, I was afraid that the whole series would span across his five years at college. Nope, the college education only takes up the first half of the book. And as dark as the first half is, the shit really hits the fan after an empty Quentin leaves Brakebills.

After some months of extreme hedonism, Quentin thinks he’ll finally go on the adventure of a lifetime when he finds out that the land of Fillory (the land from his Narnia-esque books) is real.

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As I went to Goodreads to update my status I was astonished to see all the negative reviews for The Magicians. I noticed that the disappointed reviews had some similar themes:

  • Quentin’s reaction to *Magic*, and his general character:

Don’t get me wrong, Quentin’s a miserable person, which just doubles when he leaves Brakebills unsatisfied. Lovers of fantasy and magic can’t understand why Quentin is so unhappy (especially extreme Potter fans).

The reason why is because Quentin doesn’t know how to be happy, and he thinks that magic and Fillory are going to give him purpose. It’s a classic trap, ‘If only X were real than my life would be better.’ But ultimately, Quentin will always be unhappy and dissatisfied, because he will never be satisfied with the present.

Maybe I’m giving Quentin some slack, because I was (and still am) like that too. College (and after) was a rough experience for me because I always thought the next ‘step’ in my life would complete me and make me happy. I hope I was never as shitty as Quentin, but I see his hollowness and understand his confusion and why he lashes out at the world.

I also think this mindset is very common with people in their early to mid twenties, I just think Quentin has the worst time grappling with the fact that magic isn’t a cure all (I would say Eliot and Janet have similar issues too… which makes a lot of sense why a ‘certain event’ happens between them. Sorry for the vagueness, but I trying my best not to spoil).

Despite the fantasy going around them, they are, at their cores, miserable people, and magic isn’t going to change that.

Also, Quentin’s arrogance that ramps up in the third act costs him dearly. There isn’t a lack of consequences like in some fantasy novels.  

“But I’ll tell you something: I think you’re magicians because you’re unhappy.” (pg.217)

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  • ‘Rip-off’ of Harry Potter and Narnia:

Like some readers, I was intrigued by this book because the advertisement kept emphasizing ‘grownup Harry Potter.’ So I can understand if a reader thought this was just going to be an edgier version of earlier works and became disappointed that this book was, in fact, a completely different beast.

But mostly I am surprised by the negative reviews that call the book a rip-off.

First off, the strong parallels of Fillory to Narnia… isn’t that the point!? In any case, these parallels seemed to tick off some readers who shared  Quentin’s quality in regards to wanting Fillory (aka Narnia) and magic to be real. Because Grossman wasn’t kind to those who feel that way.

With Harry Potter, it mainly ‘rips-off’ the first few books  due to the whole ‘magic school’ setting. But every time the plot looks like it’s touching the Potter series, it takes a sharp and refreshing turn away. The few elements that are similar, the book makes fun of itself. So in that way I’d call it a satire.

Personally, I thoroughly enjoy when someone takes tropes from a genre and flips them for their own purpose. So this was right up my alley.

  • The show is better!:

I can’t help anyone there, this is just a matter of taste. I watched the pilot and… yeah…

Not Shadowhunters level bad… but not good either. (I am thankful for the pictures!)

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“That’s what makes you different from the rest of us, Quentin. You actually still believe in magic. You do realize, right, that nobody else does? I mean, we all know magic is real. But you really believe in it. Don’t you.” (pg.179)

To be honest, I don’t know what other readers are going to make of this book. I think if you want your fantasy books to wrap you up in the magic (in a warm and fuzzy way), maybe you should skip.

But for me, I tend to like darker fantasy and sci-fi, especially when it’s rooted in reality (i.e. the recent Dark Matter). I know I have a dark side and this tale really spoke to me.

My only concern was the last couple pages. With trying to continue Quentin’s story into a trilogy I’m afraid that Grossman backtracked. But that’s a concern for the next book, The Magician King (which I plan on reading before the end of the year). As a stand alone book at least, I think The Magicians is solid and I’m so excited to see what’s next.

Score: 9/10

In the Margins:

  • Seriously though, the only reason why I made it through the first episode of Shadowhunters is because my husband and I were tearing it to shreds. Just awful, and I feel bad for fans of the series.
  • The ‘grownup’ adjective is spot on. I think this is definitely for mature readers, like college age and up.
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6 thoughts on “The Magicians: The Horror of Getting What You Want

  1. This is a great review. I personally didn’t like the book and couldn’t finish it. But I can see why other people did like it, and you put across your reasons really well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had started this as a free audiobook sample and haven’t revisited it–I didn’t totally know what to make of it. Also, yeah. Quentin was kind of a gloomy protagonist. This was a helpful review. Nicely written.

    Liked by 1 person

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