08 February 2012

Book Review: The Magicians

Title: The Magicians
Author: Lev Grossman
Publisher/Year: Penguin 2009
Source/Format: B&N / Print
Date Finished: 5 February 2012
Book # 5

Series Reviews: This is the first in the series.

Buy | Borrow | Accept | Avoid

The Short and Sweet of It
Quentin is waiting. Waiting for something to happen to him, something grand and epic. When he finds himself unexpectedly at a school for magic, he believes his time has come, but he soon finds out that these adventures he's dreamed of are not the key to his happiness.

A Bit of a Ramble
I spent a great deal of time thinking about whether or not this book is YA. On the YA hand, the story centers around teenagers, who divide their time between a boarding school and a magical land from children's books. Thematically, the story is a coming of age tale, focused on the growth of the main character from childhood through the teen years into the early twenties. On the other hand, the story is much darker and more richly told than the typical YA novel. Magic does not bring happiness in this story as it does in so many wizardy YA books. Our protagonist, Quentin, is not a hero fighting an evil wizard, sacrificing for the greater good with an unflinching optimism and a courageous determination. Not. At. All. The story is much more cynical than that.

Carl, over at Stainless Steel Droppings, said it perfectly: "If I were to look at stories like Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia and wonder what it would be like for those stories to be entered into not by young children still in possession of some degree of innocence but instead by disaffected and socially awkward older teenagers, this is the book I would write. If instead of those worlds being everything you always dreamed they would be they turned out to have their own problems, what would that do to you? If you thought going to a magical world would make you supremely happy and yet you still felt empty and lost when you got there, what then?"

Another point which quite firmly places the book outside of YA, to me, is that it covers so much ground, so many years. And then there's the fact that the book more or less reads like a compilation and manipulation of popular YA stories. The boarding school is definitely Hogwarts and the magical land is obviously Narnia. The bridge between Earth and Fillory (the aforementioned magical land) is extremely familiar, but for the life of me, I can't figure out where it comes from. The City, as it is called, is a series of squares with fountains in them which lead to other lands. Help me out guys...where does this come from?!?! I know I've read it. Many other fantasy novels are alluded to or directly referenced throughout the pages as well. Personally, I enjoy this borrowing.

Okay, now I have to make my disclaimer which may seem to make everything I've written so far sort of pointless: I really don't care if the book is YA or not. I love YA and adult fantasy novels; I don't think one is more "literary" than the other; and I find that the distinction is quite blurry many times. But hey, I mention it because it was in my head over the week I read the book. Plus, it gave me a way to think about and discuss a quite popular, although not universally enjoyed, book.

Now I'm off to read The Magician King, the second in the series, which made the Speculative Fiction short list for the Independent Literary Awards!

Counts towards Goal #1: Read Books I Own


  1. I really really disliked this book. But I enjoyed your discussion of why you think it isn't YA. I agree with you there.

    I thought The Magician King was much better. Hope you like it!

  2. In my head, I had never considered this YA despite never having read it. Your thoughts are interesting on the topic, especially since I've only just begun to read modern YA. I want to push this one to the top of my TBR pile, but then I would live under a crippling guilt on behalf of all the other books I've made such promises to. Excellent review!

  3. I'm glad you read this one before reading The Magician King! When I saw how super long all the spec fic short list books were, I was worried people might just read the second one... which I feel like would be basically impossible. I guess it never really occurred to me to think of this as YA. It just struck me as too... grown up? I feel like there are some more sophisticated (and cynical) things happening in the book that just doing feel YA to me. But, I don't read a ton of YA, and the kind I do read is rather particular, so I may be off on that one too :)

  4. I"m curious about this book. I kept hearing "it is a Harry Potter rip off but not as good." It seems like this isn't the way to look at it.

  5. I bought this one because is wasn't YA but looked like it had some of the same elements. I haven't got to it yet but I'm looking forward to it.

    BTW, One of those lovely little tag things is going around again so I tagged you. Sorry. I did try to come up with some fun questions for you. Check out my blog.

  6. The borrowing was what made me NOT like this book...I had no desire to revisit Hogwarts or Narnia, even if it was a darker mash-up of those worlds.

  7. I have heard varying things about this one, and am not sure if I would read this one or not. I don't know how I would feel about the borrowing, but a darker and edgier world sounds enticing to me. I will have to see about this one on audio. Thanks for the excellent review!

  8. I've seen and heard a lot about this series. Haven't decided to take the plunge myself, but the reviews I've seen have been pretty good overall. I hope you enjoy the second one!


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