The Magicians

the magicians cover art

The Magicians starts as a magical school, urban fantasy, before morphing into an adventurous portal fantasy, while maintaining a strong message about mental health, human imperfection, and what it means to belong. Magic seems to be prevalent among people who are dissatisfied with themselves and/or their lives, but while magic grants power and prestige to those who master it, it isn’t presented as a perfect solution to everyday problems.

I read the first book in The Magicians trilogy after watching season one of The Magicians on SyFy, so I had a strong awareness of the story and characters going in.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman cover with photo of a tree
My cover
the magicians by lev grossman cover with man in long coat walking down stone corridor
My cover envy

The book is told from the close third-person perspective of Quentin Coldwater, and opens with him en route to his Princeton interview. He trails after his two closest friends, Julia and James, repeating a sleight-of-hand coin trick for his own sake, habitually, like a comfort ritual.

Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.

In these first few pages we learn that Quentin has led a privileged life, is a gifted student, and has been in love with Julia since they were children. Despite having supportive friends and family, Quentin struggles with depression, and yearns for more.

I related to Quentin right away because of these early passages. I’m guilty of counting my graces in an attempt to silence my anxiety and depression. And like myself, Quentin finds no relief in the question “why am I unhappy?” Instead, he wills himself out of these sad recollections with daydreams about “Fillory and Further” (an in-universe children’s book series about a magical world accessed through a grandfather clock).

I should be happy, Quentin thought. I’m young and alive and healthy. I have good friends. I have two reasonably intact parents–viz., Dad, an editor of medical textbooks, and Mom, a commercial illustrator with ambitions, thwarted, of being a painter. I am a solid member of the middle-middle class. My GPA is a number higher than most people even realize it is possible for a GPA to be.

But walking along Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, in his black overcoat and his gray interview suit, Quentin knew he wasn’t happy. Why not? He had painstakingly assembled all the ingredients of happiness. He had performed all the necessary rituals, spoken the words, lit the candles, made the sacrifices. But happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come.

Likes / Dislikes

Book I introduces magic like a headshot from a sledgehammer.

Quentin is mystically transported to Upstate New York and informed he’s being offered an opportunity to undergo a Preliminary Exam at Brakebills College. The exam pages change before his eyes, and the room full of applicants gradually empties out without people getting up to leave. Following the written portion, magic is “coaxed” out of him in an interview, and after passing, Quentin decides to walk away from his Ivy League life and opportunities, to join a five-year program that will turn him into a magician.

I don’t like the time lapses in the novel. Months and years pass in phrases. I often needed to double-back to make note of the advancing time. On page 48, during Quentin’s first year at Brakebills, magic is described as a craft (not a science, an art, or a religion) and on page 93, Quentin and Alice are entering into their third year of magical studies. Page 106 opens:

The entire time he’d been at Brakebills, through First Year, the exams, the whole disaster with Penny, right up until the night he joined the Physical Kids, Quentin had been holding his breath without knowing it. He only realized now that he’d been waiting for Brakebills to vanish around him like a daydream.

…But it hadn’t happened. And now he understood, he really got, that it wasn’t going to happen. He’d wasted so much time thinking. It’s all a dream, and It should have been somebody else, and Nothing lasts forever. It was time he started acting like who he was: a nineteen-year-old student at a secret college for real, actual magic.

The above quote makes me think that the jarring time skips are intentional. Doubly so because with my own anxiety I tend to catastrophize and hyper fixate. Like Quentin, I focus on work and avoid acknowledging my fear that I will lose everything.

Time blindness is a real thing, and I hate it in real life, as well as in this book.

Quentin has this realization, gives himself a pep-talk about embracing the wonders of magic without fear, and then The Beast shows up.

Too Much / Not Enough

The Beast literally eats a student on school grounds, and then is not really mentioned again for 100 pages. He is the primary antagonist (lesser conflicts happen with Penny, and Quentin’s self-doubt), but is barely in the book. I think the threat The Beast presents is under-utilized, but at the same time I like the emphasis on internal and interpersonal conflicts.

There are focused and intense periods of magic scattered throughout the book. I love how character development is relied upon to propel the story, but I do wish there was more magic and suspense.

The novel doesn’t switch gears to portal fantasy until page 281 when the characters finally travel to Fillory and Quentin is practically manic when they do. They meet talking animals, embark on a quest to become kings and queens, and are being hunted by The Beast.

Even though Quentin is living his childhood fantasy, depression still plagues him, and Alice calls him out on it:

“I will stop being a mouse, Quentin. I will take some chances. If you will, for just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.”

“You can’t just decide to be happy.”

“No, you can’t. But you can sure as hell decide to be miserable. Is that what you want? Do you want to be the asshole who went to Fillory and was miserable there? Even in Fillory? Because that’s who you are right now.”

There was something true about what Alice was saying. But he couldn’t grasp it. It was too complex, or too simple. Too something. He thought of that first week he’d spent at Brakebills, when he and Elliot had gone sculling, and they’d watched the other rowers hunching, and shivering, in what to Quentin was a warmer day. That was what he looked like to Alice. It was strange: he’d thought that magic was the hardest thing he would ever do, but the rest of it was so much harder. It turned out that magic was the easy part.

Oof, right in my fucking feelings.

I’ve been repeating the phrase “I don’t want be the asshole who went to Fillory and was miserable there” to myself a lot lately. Quentin resonates so strongly to me because I have trouble getting out of my head, out of my own way, and enjoying the moment. My personal “Fillory” is getting published, and when I’m published, I want to be happy about.

Rating & Recommendation

Magic and wonder coupled with human imperfection and internal conflicts translates into a beautiful story to me, but I hesitate to recommend it wholeheartedly. The Magicians isn’t feel-good, escapist reading material. Reading this will not make you feel light and inspired.

Stories centred around magical / occult practices tend to shy away from character study, choosing to instead focus on the spectacle of sorcery. The Magicians acknowledges Quentin is a misfit, and doesn’t force the reader to consider anything else.

Quentin is a deeply flawed, and at times unlikeable, character, who I strongly empathized with because I’ve had similar mental health struggles. The hope that Quentin would evolve into a better version of himself, mirrors my hope that I will evolve into a better version of myself (not a perfect one).

Quentin walked to the floor’s edge. Sprays of smashed window glass crunched on the carpet under his fancy leather shoes. He ducked under the broken blinds. It was a long way down. He hadn’t done this for a while.

Loosening his tie with one hand, Quentin stepped out into the cold clear winter air and flew.

The Magicians is also a huge inspiration to the novel I’m writing, so with the above considerations in mind, I recommend reading it.