I want to get something out of the way right off the bat. This book has been widely praised and touted as “Harry Potter for adults”. If I had read that description only once I might have dismissed it, but it seemed to pop up in almost every review I read and had a pretty significant impact on why I picked up this book (dangerous to assume and build your hopes up – I know). This is not Harry Potter for adults. Not even close. I think it will make for a much more satisfying reading experience if you know that fact up front.
Quentin Coldwater is a 17-year-old high school senior in Brooklyn (and also a genius) who is on the brink of graduation, college, and facing the adult world, all of which he feels unprepared for and is underwhelmed by the prospects in front of him. Since childhood, he has been borderline obsessed with a series of books by author Christopher Plover about a magical land named Fillory. His attachment to these books, and his lack of enthusiasm for the world, makes him feel like there is more than just this humdrum human existence. On the day we meet him, he is proven right, as he receives a mysterious copy of a book called The Magicians, supposedly Plover’s sixth book that until this point no one knew existed. He is also whisked away into an adjacent world of magic, and enters into a college named Brakebills to be trained as a magician. Quentin feels as if everything he’s ever believed has been validated and this just might be the place that makes his dreams come true.
I’ll get this out of the way up front: this book carries some major flaws. One of my biggest issues is that throughout the first half of the book, Grossman repeatedly violates one of the most important rules in literature, which is show, don’t tell. This is a book about magic: recognizing it, learning it, using it. It should be a world of endless possibility for both the characters and the reader. Instead, each chapter essentially reads like an after-action report. For instance, we learn at one point that Quentin competes in a international Welters tournament (a made-up game similar to chess), and the most detail we get is “we played in the Carpathians, in the Argentinian pampas and in beautiful Hokkaido and then we lost all six games and it was over” (I’m paraphrasing, but not by much). There are many other incidents that are briefly described, but never fleshed out, making the story feel it was brushed with broad, empty strokes. In addition, we plow through all five years of Quentin’s education in 200 pages and about the only thing we ascertain is that learning magic is methodical and tedious and that Quentin spends most of his time studying, or hanging out with his friends (I almost air-quoted friends – more on that later) talking and drinking for hours. This may be true to life but it’s vague, boring, and unrewarding for the reader.
I had another gripe with this book: the heavy referencing of other literary works. This book borrows heavily (and I do mean heavily) from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, and to a lesser extent Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. It’s hard to determine whether the author means it as an intentional nod or not. I suspect that he meant it to be a wink wink, nudge nudge to the reader but ended up veering into blatantly-ripped-them-off territory.
This relates closely to my next issue with the book: as I delved further into the novel, there was another literary figure that I was constantly reminded of: Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye. I hated that book too. I think beyond the vagueness of the Brakebills story, this was actually the biggest problem for me. Quentin is an unsympathetic character, an anti-hero; he is whiny, unhappy, and is sometimes just downright pathetic. He wallows in self-pity and regret for his life, while simultaneously sneering at and looking down on other people. As much as this book borrows from other literary sources, the Catcher in the Rye similarities were the ones I couldn’t shake. I found Holden Caulfield insufferable the first time around, and this modern iteration of him was just as irritating.
I think the anti-hero characterization of Quentin is intentional on Grossman’s part; we’re not supposed to particularly like Quentin. He’s the type that, if things are not going his way, throws a tantrum and takes his ball and goes home. The supporting characters are almost as unlikeable, although a few of them redeem themselves in the second part of the book. In Grossman’s world, everyone uses everyone else for their own personal gains and no one bothers to form close bonds because they’re competing, or because it doesn’t serve their own purposes, or because it would just be too much effort. Even after a few of his friends leave, Quentin expresses the sentiment that he and the friends don’t keep in touch because they’re out making it as magicians in the real world and he would be disappointed in them if they did deign to try to communicate with him. I found this to be both insufferable and incredibly disingenuous.
You’ll notice that most of this review is negative. In fact, after two hundred pages, I nearly gave up, but I have a stubborn streak so I pressed on. Finally, at about the 250 page mark, I was rewarded. The book does a fairly abrupt 180 and all of a sudden, we’re in the action. A series of events leads Quentin and his friends to Fillory, the real deal, and they set off looking for adventure. Finally, we are treated to real magic, mythical creatures, and danger and excitement (although Fillory is a barely disguised Narnia). Quentin is still a whiny little twat, but the action and the other characters make up for it. The last 150 pages are what saved this book and kept me from lighting it on fire after completing it (that was my original plan).
Ultimately, I have a hard time deciding whether or not to recommend this book. The first and second halves read like they are almost entirely different books; the first being one I hated and the second being a fairly interesting tale of magic and adventure. If the idea of a disagreeable protagonists doesn’t raise your hackles, you might fare better than I did. In the end, I’m not sure that the end quite made up for the beginning, and I think I’d rather just go re-read the Narnia Chronicles.