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The Magicians
Lev Grossman
Narrated by Mark Bramhall, unabridged
Penguin Audio, 17 hours, 25 minutes

The Magicians
Lev Grossman
Lev Grossman was born in 1969 and grew up in Lexington, MA. He graduated from Harvard in 1991 with a degree in literature, later going on to the Ph.D. program in comparative literature at Yale. He worked for a string of dot-coms while writing free-lance articles about books, technology and culture in general for various magazines, newspapers and websites, including Lingua Franca, the Village Voice, and the New York Times. In 2002, he was hired by Time and became the magazine's book critic as well as one of its technology writers. His first novel, Warp, was published in 1997. His second novel, Codex, came out in 2004. Currently, he lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Lev Grossman Website
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A review by Nicki Gerlach

Seventeen-year-old Quentin Coldwater is pretty much your average highly-intelligent seventeen-year-old: he plays at being aloof, cool, and indifferent to the trials of being a teenager. But there's a secret part of him that longs for magic -- the same part of him that still loves the series of children's books set in the magical land of Fillory. One day, as he's going to a college interview, he gets somewhat sidetracked and winds up in the admissions exam for Brakebills, a college for the study of magic. He's thrilled to learn that magic is real -- and, what's more, that he can perform it -- but is disappointed to find that magical study is mostly memorization of arcane technical details… not at all the charming stuff of children's stories.

As Quentin makes his way through Brakebills' course of study, meets some adult magicians, and has to face his own adult life, he becomes increasingly disillusioned with the magical world, disconnected from the people around him, and disgusted with his own naïvety. However, when one of his classmates brings him the stunning news that not only is Fillory real, but that they've found a way to get there, Quentin thinks he's found an answer to his problems. But escaping into a magical world isn't much of an escape if your real troubles are internal…

I think the main problem that The Magicians had was one of audiences. I may be over-generalizing, here, but people who like angsty, ennui-filled coming-of-age novels are probably not the sort who are likely to pick up a book marketed as "Harry Potter goes to Narnia." Conversely, the people who (like me) think that tagline sounds excellent are probably going to be turned off by a book whose message seems to be that it's silly to look for anything magical or special in this world (or any other), so you may as well kill your sense of hope, put your head down, and get on with marking time until you die.

It's not that I don't get Lev Grossman's point about the inadequacy of fantasy as the basis for a real and productive life, and how escaping into your childhood dream-world is not the same as escaping the demons inside yourself. I do. I get it. However, while I can appreciate the validity of his message, the fact remains that many of us do read fantasy as a means of (temporary) escape from quotidian troubles. And, by couching his book about the inadequacies of fantasy in an über-familiar fantasy landscape, Grossman winds up accidentally insulting the very people to whom his book is most likely to be marketed.

I've used the term coming-of-age to describe this novel, and I realize that it's not entirely appropriate. Quentin doesn't do a whole lot of growing up over the course of the novel, ending up just as self-involved, bored, whiney, and disaffected as when the book started -- maybe even more so. Although if your definition of growing up is "becoming an empty husk of a person who used to care about and believe in things but doesn't anymore," then I guess Quentin does come of age after all.

I also had a problem with Grossman's take on J.K. Rowling's and C.S. Lewis's fantasy worlds. The resemblance between Brakebills and Hogwarts didn't bother me so much -- partly because if magic is not an instinctive ability, magicians have to learn it somewhere; partly because Rowling wasn't the first person to have the idea of a school for magic; and partly because, apart from the obvious boarding-school tropes, Brakebills didn't particularly resemble Hogwarts in a lot of the particulars.

On the other hand, Fillory is a barely-disguised knock-off of Narnia. Obviously, Grossman did this on purpose, to point up the ways in which the Narnia books fail as the basis for a real-life philosophy, but it just didn't work for me. For instance, instead of reaching Narnia by wearing special rings and jumping through pools in the wood between the worlds, having your characters reach Fillory by touching a special button and jumping through fountains in the city between the worlds felt more like laziness than like parody. (Although I do have to give credit to whoever designed Early on in the book, I wanted to make sure that I wasn't missing something by not having read the Fillory novels, and I spent about five minutes browsing through that site, and being upset that I'd never come across these books as a child, before I realized that they weren't real.)

As may be obvious by this point, my issues with this novel all have to do with its concept and marketing, rather than its execution. Grossman is good at vivid description, good at writing believable dialogue, and good at keeping things moving along even when the only action is Quentin vs. His All-Pervasive Sense of Ennui. Mark Bramhall is a reliably excellent narrator, good at distinguishing characters without making their voices so different as to be silly.

Overall, I think this book would be best suited for readers who normally dislike fantasy novels, but are willing to deal with the genre's trappings. For fantasy fans, however… those whose tastes run towards the more serious or bleak might have a better time with it than I did; but in general, I'd recommend not buying into the hype -- there's a world of difference between "fantasy for adults" and "an adult novel in fantasy clothing," and The Magicians is quite firmly in the later category.

Copyright © 2009 Nicki Gerlach

Nicki Gerlach is a mad scientist by day and an avid reader the rest of the time.  More of her book reviews can be found at her blog,

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