“The Magicians” by Lev Grossman

July 6, 2010 at 12:00 am 21 comments

I went into Lev Grossman’s second novel, The Magicians, with some trepidation for two main reasons. First, his previous novel (Codex) had been interesting but had such a disappointingly abrupt ending that I almost thought someone had made off with the last pages and I had a dud copy. (This was not the case. It’s really over that suddenly and annoyingly.) This ending had not endeared Mr. Grossman or his future work to me.

Second, I am wary of anything billed as “like Harry Potter” or as “in the style of J.K. Rowling.” Nothing I have ever seen marketed as such has lived up to expectations and The Magicians in particular appeared not only “like Harry Potter” but bordering on plagiarism. A boy unexpectedly finds out he has magic powers and is sent away to a magical school where he learns about a hidden magical world and has adventures with his band of friends? It all sounded a little too familiar.

So I went in cautiously. I tred softly, I read carefully, and I explored fretfully with a hint of skepticism. It was all undeniably well written, with obvious but not forced erudition and an impressive mingling of imagined circumstances with truthful expressions of feeling. But I didn’t let myself relax. Codex had lured me in with Mr. Grossman’s same fine prose and I still didn’t know how I felt about his apparently blatant rip-off of Hogwarts (here it is called Brakebills).

But somewhere around page 43 something wonderful (dare I say magical?) happened: I realized both that my trepidation was unnecessary and that I was holding something truly extraordinary in my hands. I was holding a book marketed with absolute accuracy that managed to be “like Harry Potter” but simultaneously different and thus in some ways far better than it. Mr. Grossman accomplished something wholly improbable with this book and I am a happier reader for having experienced it.

Mr. Grossman manages to tip his hat to J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, and T.R.R. Tolkein (all at once!) while infusing the story with his own creations to make The Magicians seem remarkably fresh. He isn’t plagiarizing; he is genuinely paying homage to authors he clearly admires and letting his inner fantasy nerd run merrily loose in his own created worlds rather than borrowing theirs specifically. All the same, readers of any of the noted authors will recognize Brakebills as akin to Hogwarts, Fillory as Narnia’s stepsister, and Quentin (our hero) as some mix of Ron Weasley, one of the Pevensie brothers, and perhaps Shadow from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

And Mr. Grossman is wonderfully aware of his own borrowing. His characters do not exist in a place devoid of pop culture; rather, they are actual people who reference Hogwarts or Star Trek or anything that a modern person would. My favorite moment of this had to be when one character (Josh) is discovered drunk and late for a game of welters (some mix of wizard’s chess and a magic duel). He stumbles into a door frame and then abruptly stops himself, tipsily saying, “Hang on. Gotta get my quidditch costume. I mean uniform. I mean welters.” Quinton immediately replies, “We don’t have uniforms.” to which Josh snaps, “I know that. I’m drunk, I’m not delusional.” They know where they are and how much it is like that other magical school (perhaps referenced when the Dean notes another school of magic “somewhere in England”) and Mr. Grossman isn’t afraid to note the obvious parallels. In fact, he seems to have great fun with it.

Additionally, one of the things that makes The Magicians a perfect book to read in any post-Harry Potter state of depression is that Mr. Grossman aptly engages with the deeper questions and darker side of magic (or at least the magic of literature). Where does it come from? Does it really make things easier or just create new challenges we never before imagined? Everyone wishes they could be magical and go to Hogwarts, but is getting that wish really a good thing? Perhaps the “nonmagical” real world already holds enough wonder for us to be content in it, even without real magic.

I could go on forever about the things I liked in this book (in fact, I tried to make a list but failed after I realized I thought almost everything about the book was so laudable) so I’ll leave you with this: The Magicians is, in short, a beautiful story and a book to be read immediately with lively abandon and then savored repeatedly thereafter. It is bittersweet and nearly perfect, with the just the right doses of literary magic (an uncommon skill, much like “real” magic itself), excellently developed characters, and an improbably original plot with numerous threads which, wondrously, all manage to reunite by the end (hurray for Mr. Grossman conquering his ending woes!). I just finished it not three hours ago and all I want to do is read it again. So please, join me in doing so. You will absolutely not regret it.



Entry filed under: Fantasy. Tags: , , , , .

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21 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Britney  |  July 6, 2010 at 3:31 am

    I’m going to have to give this one another go! I had it checked out from the library last year, but I never got past the first chapter. :)

    • 2. Corey  |  July 7, 2010 at 5:30 pm

      Indeed, the first chapter is not its strongest. Once Quentin gets beyond Brooklyn and to Brakebills things pick up!

  • 3. babytyche08  |  July 6, 2010 at 9:51 am

    Haven’t read that book but I’m planning .. thanks

    • 4. Corey  |  July 7, 2010 at 5:30 pm

      Cool, my pleasure!

  • 5. Shannon  |  July 6, 2010 at 7:15 pm

    I keep forgetting that I want to read this book. I’ll have to make sure to pick it up somewhere. Sounds great.

    • 6. Corey  |  July 7, 2010 at 5:31 pm

      I hope you like it! I really enjoyed it, but it might be one of those love it/hate it books!

  • 7. Kate  |  July 6, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    Just got this out of the library today, solely because of this review — can’t wait to read it! :D

    • 8. Corey  |  July 7, 2010 at 5:32 pm

      Sweet! I hope you like it, too! (And way to go Room of Requirement Library!)

      • 9. Kate  |  July 8, 2010 at 6:04 pm

        Believe it or not, this was the other library! I took a gamble :P

  • 10. Iris  |  July 7, 2010 at 11:37 am

    This is certainly a glowing review and you have me convinced that I need to read this.

    • 11. Corey  |  July 7, 2010 at 5:32 pm

      Ah, pressure! ;)

  • 12. Abby  |  July 28, 2010 at 4:28 am

    Thank you so much! I’m going through some sort of Hogwarts withdrawal at the moment and this looks great!

    • 13. Corey  |  July 28, 2010 at 6:11 pm

      This book really did it for me, so I hope you like it!

  • […] 6, 2010 On the recommendation of Corey, I read The Magicians this week. We generally like the same books, and so it was no surprise to me that I also found it […]

  • 15. A belated 2010 wrap-up « Literary Transgressions  |  January 17, 2011 at 12:19 am

    […] Surprising Book Read in 2010: The Magicians by Lev Grossman (surprisingly […]

  • […] fact, it reminded me of a similar trick performed by Lev Grossman in his The Magicians: Grossman borrowed liberally from another literary tradition (fantasy rather than adventure) to […]

  • […] book belongs in a category of novels with Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It is […]

  • 18. Library Loot: Week of September 1 | Literary Transgressions  |  September 4, 2014 at 5:06 am

    […] Secret History by Donna Tartt When the New York Times wrote of Lev Grossman’s amazing The Magicians as “like The Secret History crossed with Harry Potter“, and I hadn’t heard of, […]

  • […] time and somehow always forget how funny J.K. Rowling is. Kate: Not lame! Mine are similar — The Magicians and The Magician King by Lev Grossman. I didn’t think much of them the first time, but the second […]

  • […] written about my first time reading The Magicians (and how unabashedly I loved it) before. This book was everything it promised and then somehow ten […]

  • […] the same, it is hard to express what was so great about The Magician’s Land. Much like when I first read The Magicians, I am so bowled over by how enjoyable, how well-plotted, and how imaginative the book is that it is […]


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