Review: The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
Updated: Oct 18, 2020
'To me, The Magicians is the perfect illustration of our human propensity to misjudge what will truly make us happy.'
I picked up The Magicians at a time when I was in the mood for some real magic, a literary escape (it was in the middle of the first 2020 lockdown, there was no other escape possible!). On that front, the book delivered. Big Time.
The Magicians tells the story of Quentin Coldwater, a young man dissatisfied with the mundane, unexciting quality of his life and constantly living in a fantasy world of wishful thinking. In comes Brakebills, a secret and exclusive school of magic, swooping in to recruit Quentin to be part of its elite student body, changing Quentin's life forever. The book follows Quentin's adventure as a student of magic and beyond, through fulfilling his ultimate ambition of finding Fillory, the promise land of wonders he's always dreamt of.
Grossman's style is simple, yet powerful, and deliciously sarcastic. The story, told from Quentin's point of view, moves fast and doesn't give you much time to catch a break. Before you realise what happened, you've been catapulted into the next thing, and the next, and the next, all in a casual, matter-of-fact, this-is-how-it-is manner which does wonders to suck you ever deeper into the world of The Magicians.
Beyond the fantastic world of Quentin and his friends, much beyond the weird and wonderful, what I liked most about The Magicians was the underlying melancholy which its characters carry with them. All of its protagonists seem to form a collection of semi-broken, scarred, stranded individuals, each trying to find their way through life, towards an elusive sense of purpose and fulfilment.
Quentin's tale is one I expect will resonate with many readers: that of the strange kid, too quirky and too clever for his own good, longing for change and a more extraordinary life. And when that life is served to him on a silver platter, as it grows in excitement and wonder, so does his disillusionment. How very human, to yearn of something so intensely, only to be unable to appreciate it when you finally reach it, or to realise it wasn't all you expected it to be? Or that you'd been looking for and wanting the wrong thing all along?
There is one paragraph which particularly stuck with me, which came extremely well-timed because I came across it at a time the world around us was forcing everyone to question their own notions of happiness. It is part of a dialogue between Alice and Quentin:
'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 th 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.'
To me, The Magicians is the perfect illustration of our human propensity to misjudge what will truly make us happy, to keep aiming for a hardly attainable Holy Grail, when all we ever needed was right there in front of (and within) us.
I've seen this book and its sequels described as 'Harry Potter for grown-ups', but I feel this is doing a disservice to The Magicians, because it has more than enough calibre to stand on its own two feet.
Its informal narration style and super fast-paced plot may not be to everyone's taste. It risks disappointing anyone who's indeed looking for 'Harry Potter for grown-ups'. And Quentin is not your typical hero - he's rude, grumpy and more often than not, a bit of an arse. But the book is a great, easy and highly enjoyable read for anyone who's prepared to look beyond the logistical ups and downs of Quentin's journey, and reflect upon the its underlying message: a call to action to review our own life goals, ponder our definition of happiness and discard our misguided expectations that one's ultimate purpose for living may be tied with arbitrary goals of material achievement.