Review & Brew: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I hadn’t heard of The Magicians until SyFy made a show based on the trilogy. If you haven’t heard of it, the series is about a teenager named Quentin Coldwater who discovers that magic is real when he is admitted to a prestigious 5-year college of magic in upstate New York. The series is like a combination of Harry Potter and Narnia, but with real, flawed characters who struggle to find their place in the world.

Setting

Okay, so I know I said the series was like Harry Potter, but the similarity pretty much ends after the first half of the first book in the trilogy. In the world of The Magicians, magic is real and students can learn how to use it at magical universities. However, that’s far from the point of the series.

The Chronicles of Narnia is a more apt comparison. In this series, popular children’s books detail the adventures of the Chatwin siblings in the magical realm of Fillory. These in-world books are very similar to Narnia. An important theme in this series is how the reality of Fillory differs from the children’s fantasy.

Overall, the message of The Magicians is that magic doesn’t just fix problems. It can also create them, but the important issues can’t be solved with magic, anyways.

Characters

The main character, Quentin, starts the series as a whiny and self-absorbed brat, but he ends up growing tremendously throughout the story. There are no chosen ones, dark lords, or sinister conspiracies, only people who sometimes make stupid decisions and have to deal with the consequences.

The side characters are equally flawed, but in different ways. Several of them have drug problems, or depression, or an actual addiction to magic. None of the characters are all that loveable, but they can be almost uncomfortably relatable.

Plot

Quentin learns that he has the potential to become a magic-wielding magician and is accepted to Brakebills University. Once there, he discovers that he’s no longer special. Everyone else is equally brilliant, and most of them are actually better at magic than he is.

From there, the series is an interesting balance between plot and character. There are deranged magicians and evil gods, but these take a back seat compared to the internal conflict most of the characters face. Instead of being a series about how a special few can use magic to overcome extreme challenges, this is a series about how characters must find their own way to happiness, regardless of magical ability.

Writing Style

The prose doesn’t stand out as being particularly strong, but it’s definitely well-written. The pacing is somewhat slow, though quicker than most purely character-driven stories can be. There are some significant plot points that serve to advance the story and keep things moving, but the focus is always on the characters’ internal struggles.

Should You Read This?

The Magicians is one of the most controversial fantasy series out there. People tend to either love these books or hate them. I think the key deciding factor is how you feel about the characters. A lot of them are self-absorbed and relatively unlikeable, but they are complex and grow a lot as the series progresses.

The magic system is undefined, but magic typically creates more problems than it fixes so there’s not much deus ex machina. The plot doesn’t move all that quickly, but the character journeys are rewarding. If you enjoy dry humor, there’s plenty of that to go around.

If there’s one quote that summarizes the feel of this series, it’s this:

In our world, no one ever knows what do to. And everyone is just as clueless and full of crap as everyone else. And you have to figure it all out by yourself. And even after you’ve figured it out and done it, you’ll never know whether you were right or wrong.

Overall, this a series that is absolutely worth your time if you go into it with a realistic idea of what to expect.

Beverage Pairing

Magic Coffee

Ingredients:

  • 2/3 cup coarsely ground coffee
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 3 tbsp brown sugar
  • milk or cream

Recipe:

  • Combine coffee, cinnamon, sugar, and water in a jar and stir. Seal the jar and refrigerate overnight.
  • Filter the jar contents into a new container for easy storage. This is your coffee base for each drink.
  • For each drink, fill a tall glass halfway full with ice. Pour coffee base from the storage container into the glass until about 3/4 full.
  • Top with milk or cream to taste.

This beverage might seem like the perfect drink for winter weather. However, be careful. Too much of a good thing can cause more problems than it cures.

Bingo Squares

  • Audiobooks
  • Past Square (portal fantasy, urban fantasy)
  • Time Travel
  • Sequel (books other than the first)
  • AMA Author
  • Seafaring (book 2)

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