For my birthday this year, I was gifted with a copy of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. I had already started watching the TV series on the Syfy channel, so I wasn’t sure if I would want to dive right in on the book. I mean, we all know how it usually goes, right? The book is better than the movie! I ended up waiting until I had finished up the first season on Syfy, and then I waited a little longer to pick up the book when I could really enjoy it.
This is the kind of story that I’m a sucker for, and one which the millions of Harry Potter fans have already proven is a good one. The very basics of the two stories are the same: a young misfit gets plucked from misery and sent to a magic school. However, Grossman’s version of this type of tale is most definitely more grown up. There is a darkness here that is definitely the weight of adult struggles such as failure, search for meaning, and, of course, love.
BEWARE: there are spoilers from here out!
Quentin Coldwater is a senior in high school, and more than a bit of a book nerd. His favorite series is about the adventures of several siblings in a magical world called Fillory, and his favorite hobby is doing magic tricks. He is struggling with the typical boredom and general dissatisfaction that go along with that age, when he stumbles upon a strange school that seems to exist almost in its own dimension. He is tested, admitted, and begins his studies in magic, along with a cohort of fellow students. What follows are adventures of a variety of types, some of the normal, growing up variety, but others that will take them beyond the world that they know and change them in ways that they couldn’t have imagined.
What I loved most about this book was Grossman’s humor. It is delightfully dark and clever, and it often made me laugh out loud. Like when they were exploring a cave:
Nobody noticed a large – ten-feet-long large – green lizard standing frozen amid the remains of the shattered tables and benches until it abruptly unfroze and skittered off into the shadow, claws skritching on the stone floor. The horror was almost pleasant: it wiped away Alice and Janet and everything else except itself, like a harsh, abrasive cleaner.
and when they were hanging out a bar in another land:
The others were conspicuously silent, or talked among themselves, elaborately play-acting that they were unaware of the fact that Quentin was conversing with a drunk magic bear … Quentin understood that he was operating outside most of the group’s comfort level. He could see out of the corner of his eye that Eliot was trying to shoot him warning glances from the other table, but he avoided them … It wasn’t like what he was doing was easy. The range of Humbledrum’s interests was suffocatingly narrow, and its depth of knowledge in those areas abysmally profound. Quentin still vaguely remembered being a goose, how laser-focused he’d been on air currents and freshwater greenery, and he realized now that all animals were probably, at heart, insufferable bores. As a hibernating mammal Humbledrum had far more than the layman’s familiarity with cave geology. When it came to honey, it was the subtlest and most sophisticated of gastronomes. Quentin learned quickly to steer the conversation away from chestnuts.
Often it is in Quentin’s darkest hours when the humor seems to be most striking, and Grossman has an amazing feel for the small ironies and indignities of life. Quentin’s character is built on the insecurities, id urges, and a general confusion about how to be human that we all recognize. His behavior is often childish and sometimes tedious, but he is somehow more likable for that – and more realistic. Usually, he responds badly to situations. He’s not even the hero much of the time. In this book, our protagonist is very much an “Everyman”, albeit one with magical powers.
Grossman’s writing style is literary without being overbearing. If you look for details in the descriptions of surroundings or places, only what is needed is there. Instead, it’s the internal workings of Quentin’s mind that are provided with rich detail and tone. One of the most striking aspects of how Grossman does this is in the last part of the book where Quentin’s thoughts and actions consistently revolve around one path of action, but when presented with the opposite option in reality he immediately chooses it. The contradictory nature of his internal workings is so very like how we all seem to work. It makes him very human.
So, I definitely loved Grossman’s book. And, I have to say that in this instance, I was not disappointed with the TV version of this story, either. The first season doesn’t follow the book very closely and branches off into some other directions. For example, Quentin’s friend and schoolboy crush, Julia, has an entire storyline associated with her. Some names have been changed – Janet has become Margo – and Penny becomes more of a main player from the start of the story. However, I think that the changes work well, and many of the characters from the book have still been used, just in slightly different fashion.
One of the things that the TV show does extremely well is show the magic. The book talks about them making odd gestures with their hands, throwing fireballs, doing all kinds of crazy things – and then the TV show gives you what that might look like. The special effects are outstanding! Additionally, the various worlds are visually different and interesting.
If I am honest, I have to say that the characters in the TV show probably made me like the ones in the book more. The cast seem perfect for their parts. Individually, they nail their characters, but together they all seem to have the sense of camaraderie that their alternates in the book displayed. But, here you get to see it play out on screen with all of the inherent chemistry between real people.
I’m not far into the second season of the series, but so far it has been a lot of fun, too. And, I have definitely put the other two books in Grossman’s series on my list to read in the future. I would definitely recommend both the book and series to anyone with an interest in witches and dark fantasy.