George R.R. Martin, the author of the acclaimed Game of Thrones series, once said that “‘the Magicians’ is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea… Hogwarts was never like this.”
Nothing–nothing–compares to Harry Potter.
In Potter, there is childlike wonder with magic. There is innocence–a kind of purity that is present throughout the entire series even though the storyline gets pretty dark. This comes from the fact that, while Harry, Ron, Hermione and all the other characters battle with the obvious, outward evil (Voldemort) and even the possibility of evil inside themselves, they actually are good people. Throughout Potter, the characters don’t just maintain their innocence. They actually develop. Even J.K. Rowling’s prose develops with each novel to show how the characters are growing in their magical education and as people.
In “The Magicians,” written by Lev Grossman, there is no character growth. This is especially true of the main character, 17-year-old Brooklynite Quentin Coldwater, who constantly whines about how terrible his life is. At the beginning of the novel, he is attending a prestigious private school. He is exceptionally smart and comes from a very rich family. The only thing that could really be perceived as a hardship (this word is being used lightly) is the fact that he’s completely in love with his best friend, Julia, who is completely unavailable as she is dating his other best friend, James. Despite having everything he could ever want—besides Julia, that is—Quentin is empty and basically hates everything. He’s a precocious and pretentious jerk who fails to see anything good that happens to him–and, okay, that’s fine. A lot of stories start this way with the main character lost and unhappy no matter how good she or he has it because that character has not found a purpose yet.
What’s amazing, though, is that Quentin never changes. He’s never happy because he finds the worst in every single situation.
During his exhausting and god-awful 17 years, he’s always loved the “Fillory and Further” books, which are a little bit Harry Potter and a whole lot Narnia, and always wanted to be part of that world. The “Fillory and Further” books are all about the (maybe) fictional Chatwin siblings and their magical adventures in Fillory. Even when he Pevensie-style (the Pevensies are the siblings who are transported to Narnia via wardrobe) stumbles into Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy and discovers that magic is, indeed, real, he quickly turns magic into something borderline loathsome for himself.
Back to the Jane thing–Quentin forgets her pretty quickly once he gets to Brakebills, which is fine; it was just a crush, and he doesn’t see her much anymore, so he doesn’t think about her at all. Instead, he starts thinking about his fellow classmate, the small and insanely intelligent Alice (the only not-terrible character in the book who doesn’t deserve her fate). This, too, would be fine, except for the fact that he treats her–and basically every girl or woman in the story–terribly. On top of being a narcissist, he’s also a misogynistic pig.
“The Magicians” covers about four or five years of Quentin’s life and sees him into his early 20s, yet he still never changes. It’s amazing, really. So is the fact that Grossman himself seems to think himself too sophisticated to write a character who is actually human.
Despite the fact that the novel is unbearable at times, it is interesting enough that if readers can make it through the whole thing, they will want to read the next book, “The Magician King,” to see what will happen next. There’s also a third book called “The Magician’s Land.”
Martin is right about one thing, after all. Hogwarts is nothing like “The Magicians.” Without being prudish, Rowling obviously tells a story with morals. On the other hand, Grossman tells a tale about the pursuit of drugs, sex and alcohol that celebrates hedonism and an almost sociopathic character.
“The Magicians” was adapted for television in 2015. The show, now in its second season, airs on Syfy. It’s simply based on the novels in the series, so there’s no telling if Quentin and his friends are as horrible in the show as they are in the book.
**Originally published on February 16, 2017 in The Falcon, Volume 89, Issue 4
PDF of original version: Falcon The Magicians Review
(Image belongs to me.)