Review by Christopher G. Nutall
The Magicians is a deeply overrated book.
There’s no way to get around this. The world-building is derivative in many ways – drawing its principle inspiration from Harry Potter and Narnia – but that alone is not enough to dissuade me from finishing a book and moving on to the sequels. Indeed, the world-building has just enough original flair to keep my attention.
The problem lies with the main character, the ‘hero.’ I started to dislike him the moment I first met him and my feelings didn’t improve as the book went along. Quentin Coldwater isn’t much more likeable than Left Behind’s Rayford Steele (although he’s much less creepy) and while he does have a few moments of self-reflection (Steele has none), he never actually grows into adulthood. Indeed, in many ways, Quentin is the boy who never grew up. And while the book is aware of his weaknesses – Alice points them out to him at one point – he is never seen to overcome them.
Quentin – a brilliant student from a wealthy family – is obsessed with finding the adventure that will give his life meaning. Or he thinks will give his life meaning. He finds his way to Hogwarts – sorry, Brakebills Academy – where he studies magic, but he is still not satisfied; he finds his way to Narnia – sorry, Fillory – where his lust for adventure leads to tragedy and a return to the mundane world … that lasts around five or six pages. And yet, Quentin is simply unsatisfied by his life.
It is this complete lack of satisfaction that leaves me wanting to shake him. Quentin is basically a spoilt rich kid, the type of person – like Chelsea Clinton – who can comfortably say that he doesn’t care much about money. During the second part of the book, Quentin and his friends basically act like college students even though they’d not in college any longer – they spend their days in hedonism while the rest of us have to count pennies while desperately searching for a job. Quentin has the love of a good woman, yet he cheats on her purely for shits and giggles. And then he has the gall to be hurt when she refuses to take it in good part.
Quentin is simply never satisfied with his life.
I’ve said that several times because it is a recurring theme in the book. He lusts for adventure, for something that will give his life meaning, then largely ignores it when it is right in front of him. And then, when he does find a gateway to another world, he and his friends plunge in without thinking.
It would be fun, perhaps, to write a novel exploring what happened if the four Pensive children – the original children – stumbled into Narnia as adults. Children and young teens accept the magic of the world, adults would start asking questions. (And realistically, can you blame Susan for turning away from Narnia?) But this book doesn’t really answer any of those questions. Instead, they just blunder around like idiots.
The Magicians is also badly-paced. The first part of the book – life in magic-college – covers several years; the second part – life as a post-student – seems equally as long. The third part, where the adventure really starts, isn’t anything like long enough. I would have preferred, really, to have the entire first book set in college. There are a lot of ideas here, but Grossman doesn’t do any of them true justice. Indeed, quite a few aspects of Harry Potter or Narnia that should have been explored are not.
In the end, The Magicians is an interesting book badly let down by its main character.
Two stars out of five.
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