(Hi, my bookish friends. This is a guest review by Mr. A)
The theme of today’s review is subversion. Tropes are tropes for a reason. Little literary shortcuts are useful for telling stories because of pattern recognition. It’s why certain character archetypes and plots show up across all forms of media. Great stories add their own little twists to established formulas. The Magicians is a subversive novel that takes your expectations for a ride.
On the surface, The Magicians is your standard post Harry Potter urban fantasy. A youth (Quentin Coldwater) discovers that magic is real and is invited into a Hogwarts-esque establishment (Brakebills). Quentin learns magic at Brakebills and meets a band of supporting characters including his friends Eliot, Josh, and Janet, and his love interest Alice. This is a fairly common plot that goes back to CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series and that is prevalent in fantasy even to this day.
What really sets The Magicians apart from other novels of it’s ilk is in the way Grossman approaches the characters and the subject of magic. Magic is portrayed like any other area of study. The study of which is tedious and repetitive. It’s almost a language unto itself, with its own grammar and exceptions. The characters are likewise people that are obsessed with success. Intellectuals and high achievers. You’d have to be to even want to attempt to learn magic. Thus, magic is used as a means to explore these character’s personalities.
Whereas many other stories take voyeuristic joy in the impossible, this novel makes the marvelous rather mundane. Despite his many gifts and powers, Quentin is perpetually seeking greener fields. He’s anxious and unhappy, constantly longing for an imaginary perfect happy place. He doesn’t really appreciate what he has in the present and he constantly sabotages his own emotional wellbeing in the pursuit of greater satisfaction.
The Magicians is very much an anti-fantasy. It’s subversive and cynical, poking fun at the genre it belongs to. It borrows from and references other well known works and is an unusual amalgamation of its predecessors. Kind of like if you mixed Harry Potter with The Chronicles of Narnia and tossed in a dash of American Psycho. Is it worth reading? Sure, though I can’t speak to your enjoyment of the book.