Lev Grossman: The Magicians (Plume, 2009)

The Magicians

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to force myself through a book I actively disliked. Most of those books were for school.1 This one was not, but for some reason I’m a glutton for punishment and I had some vague hope that things would improve as I read further.

They didn’t.

The Magicians is about a 17-year-old man-child named Quentin Coldwater, who is the most arrogant, entitled, self-centered shitbag of a protagonist I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading a 400-page book about. I’m kind of amazed at the sheer number of times I paused while reading this book and said, “I fucking hate this guy.” He’s so pathetic it’s contemptible. I don’t even feel sorry for him; he evokes no pathos. He’s just the worst example of teenage white male chauvinism. And it’s not like it takes a few chapters for this image of him to set in—I think I got to page 15 before I turned to my roommate on the T and said, “I think I hate the main character.”

Quentin is a math genius who passes the entrance exam and is accepted to a college of magic called Brakebills, located somewhere in Westchester County, New York.2 He’s in love with his friend Julia, who is dating his other friend, James. He can’t quite seem to get over this fact. He’s also obsessed—and I say this as someone who wishes Middle-earth were a real place3—with a series of books called Fillory and Further, written by a Christopher Plover.4 My problem isn’t that Quentin is an unrepentant nerd, though—he’s a dick, and he doesn’t seem to have much regard for the feelings of others or the ability to feel properly guilty for some of the shit he does. Also, his narrative is the epitome of the male gaze; most female characters he encounters are graced with a description of their breasts or other physical attributes. It’s just kind of gross and alienating as a female reader.

You can tell that Lev Grossman was trying to write a literary novel about magic, because the descriptions are beautiful if a bit wordy, but the fact that it is so literary made it hard to immerse myself in the world and feel like I could understand the characters’ motives and actions. I did some Googling while I was reading to see if I was the only one who was frustrated with Quentin5 and I came across this article on io9’s Observation Deck, where the author said that it was a fantasy book written by someone who clearly has some disdain for fantasy but feels connected to it due to their childhood, and I feel like that was a pretty apt description. And on top of that, I think Quentin was really the only three-dimensional character, and he was the worst. Eliot and Janet seemed like total caricatures, Josh was very flat, and I actually really liked Alice but obviously that didn’t work out.6


Alice really got the short straw in this book. She ends up drawing Quentin’s attention, and during their semester spent at Brakebills South—the Antarctic campus—they get turned into Arctic (Antarctic?) foxes and there’s some weird animal pheromones in the air and they end up, er, mating.7 Eventually this leads to them dating once they’re back in human form, but then Quentin fucking cheats on her and has a drunk three-way with Eliot and Janet, which is honestly the most clichéd thing that could have happened. And then she sacrifices herself so Quentin’s stupid ass can live on for another two books. I MEAN, REALLY.

I will say I liked the general idea of the story, and the perpetual creepiness I got from Brakebills.8 The chapter where the Beast makes his first appearance was genuinely frightening and I had to re-read it a couple times to really absorb the horror of the situation. Any time the Beast shows up is pretty horrible, honestly. The Physical Kids’ final fight against him in the tomb is basically a bloodbath.

But I gotta say—I finished the book and then I watched the entire first season of the TV series on SyFy, and I’m definitely partial to the TV show. For one, Quentin (Jason Ralph) is much more relatable and less of an immature baby, although he has his stupid pigheaded moments (like his behavior after the aforementioned threesome). Also, Penny (Arjun Gupta) is a goddamn treasure,9 and Eliot10 (Hale Appleman) is probably my favorite part of the show. I was sort of whatever about him in the book, but I feel like the TV show gave him SO much more depth (and he’s adorable, to boot). The series adds some more interesting female characters (Marina, played by Kacey Rohl,11 and Kady, played by Jade Tailor) since the book is basically limited to Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley). The cast is much more diverse than I recall the characters in the book being, too, which is wonderful. The writing is also much funnier and the characters feel more real; they weren’t nearly this fleshed out on paper. We also get to see what happened to Julia (Stella Maeve) on the same timeline as Quentin’s time at Brakebills, whereas in the book we don’t really find out much about her until the second book (which I’m only about 50 pages into right now).

Maybe by the time Season 2 premieres (January 2017) I’ll have finished the series. Or maybe I could start reading A Breath of Snow and Ashes (Outlander #6) since Season 2 of Outlander just started last week… I could really use some valiant Jamie Fraser after all of Quentin’s bullshit.


  1. And the ones I really hated were luckily in the public domain, so I could just download them from the Gutenberg Project and Ctrl-F to find the bits I really needed. I’m looking at you, Bleak House. Fuck you, Charles Dickens, and fuck your inability to write a single damn compelling female character!!!
  2. It’s described as Upstate, but they’re honestly barely outside of NYC, and Westchester is not Upstate!!! Signed, the Capital District.
  3. And yet I have the social graces to not talk people’s ears off about it whenever I’m given the opportunity.
  4. These books are, by the way, a completely obvious rip-off of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, with a group of siblings who enter a magical land—that would be the aforementioned Fillory—through a grandfather clock and are kicked out at the end of each book by a god-like pair of rams, Ember and Umber (not unlike Lion Jesus Aslan). The series stopped after five books, when the eldest Chatwin, Martin, manages to escape into Fillory and avoid being frog-marched back into reality by the rams.
  5. Exact Google searches: “Quentin Coldwater asshole” “Quentin Coldwater self-pity”
  6. It’s like Lev Grossman knew she was the only sympathetic character, so he had to kill her off. Bastard.
  7. It definitely isn’t anything like Hogwarts except for the fact that a major conceit of the story is how hard Brakebills tries to copy the English public school atmosphere.
  8. And he’s about a billion times less insufferable than he was in the book. Quentin’s attitude toward Penny was just about the only thing I could sympathize with in the book, because I would have told book!Penny to shut the fuck up every time he opened his mouth, too.
  9. Whose surname I just realized is Waugh, which is so fitting because he has the sassiness and mean girlishness of Evelyn Waugh.
  10. Apparently she’s playing Megara on Once Upon a Time, to which I say “When the hell did they decide to introduce the characters from Hercules?”

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