I read this on a recommendation. It made me sad, but not entirely in a bad way.

The Magicians is usually described as "Harry Potter for grownups", or "a Narnia ripoff". Neither seems very accurate to me, or rather, they're only accurate if you focus on details rather than theme. There is a magic school, Brakebills, which is clearly a version of Hogwarts. There is a magic land, Fillory, which is Narnia with the serial numbers filed off. But Grossman is interested in analysing those other works, not in lifting them, and this isn't a pastiche. It is, perhaps, critical of a particular sort of escapist fantasy, but the nastiness in the book isn't aimed at them.

I suspect that whether or not you find reading The Magicians rewarding is likely to be linked to your tolerance for Quentin Coldwater, the viewpoint character. Quentin is 18 at the start of the book, and miserable for no really obvious (i.e. easily solvable) reason. He stays miserable and disconnected, to a large extent, for the whole novel. Reviews I've seen have found this off-putting, found themselves disliking him because with all of his undoubted privilege (he gets to go to magical worlds! His parents are well off! He can do magic! He's white, male etc), he doesn't seem to enjoy himself.

The trouble with that view is that it isn't the way the world works. Quentin knows he should be happy, but he just isn't. I don't think that's a crime, particularly. One of the major themes of The Magicians is about growing up, in the sense of coming to terms with who you are, at least acknowledging your limitations, and it makes the statement powerfully that 1) you have to do this and 2) it hurts. A lot. Quentin amasses successes and failures, and his mistakes (and he makes some big ones) hurt him more than his successes buoy him. Oddly enough, I found quite a lot of empathy for Quentin, even if his whining can get grating, the fact that he knows it saves him. At heart, Quentin is a long way from Thomas Covenant, which I think is a blessing.

The second major theme of the book is an uncertain grappling with fantasy. Grossman meditates over whether fantasy can be a cure, or whether it's only a palliative. When Quentin and associates finally visit Fillory, they don't find a magical land that cures their problems. Instead they find the problems that they brought with them, and that things are never as simple as they appear in books.

In the hands of another writer, The Magicians could be mean-spirited and scathing. But Grossman loves fantasy, and instead of damning it, worries and considers.

I don't know that I loved the book. But it moved me, and made me sad, and made me mull my own limitations and failures. I read the sequel immediately after, and I'll buy the third one when it comes out.

But that was true of Thomas de Prima's "A Galaxy Unknown" and /that's/ unspeakable rubbish (but kind of fun, in an unspeakably rubbish way).


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