Return of Santitas #CBR4 # Review No. 8: The Magicians by Lev Grossman
I am way behind in my Cannonball reviewing. There is a pile of books that I’ve left stacked on my desk to remind myself to review and every time I look at it, I get stressed out and don’t do anything about it. I can procrastinate anything, instantly turning a fun activity like writing a book review into a tortuous nightmare. But guess what is even more procrastinatable? TAXES. This year, because I’m living in a foreign land, I must do my taxes, then fill out another form that basically says “I didn’t make enough money for you guys to charge me any taxes, so pretty much ignore that other form I spent a whole day filling out.” Charming.
To avoid filling out forms, I have dived into the pile and come out with The Magicians by Lev Grossman. This was a re-read for me because I stumbled onto the sequel, The Magician King, and I wanted to remind myself what the first one is about. It has been described by every reviewer ever as “Harry Potter for grownups” and it’s sort of true to that description, at least for the first sections of the book.
The story revolves around Quentin Coldwater, a miserable bastard of a high school senior in Brooklyn. He’s a genius, his friends are geniuses. Quentin is also a disaffected, depressed guy with a chip on his shoulder. He has nothing but disdain for his parents and no real connection to anyone or anything, save some token lust for his also-genius friend Julia. After a disastrous college interview (the guy who is supposed to interview him turns out to be dead) Quentin is suddenly transported to the magical campus of Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy for an admissions test. Turns out, like Harry Potter, he was secretly a magician the whole time as well as being a genius.
When stripped down to its bare components, The Magicians can be compared to Harry Potter–boy is secretly magical etc. But really this book is nothing like HP. Lev Grossman very deliberately sets his book in the real world. (Characters joke about HP). There is no epic quest awaiting the Brakebills students, other than their quest through finals and to drink themselves silly, like most college students.
Despite the coolness of being able to do magic, Quentin always returns to his natural state of dissatisfaction. He is a miserable wanker. An unremitting tosser, as one review called him. This is off-putting. Quentin blows. But actually, Quentin’s bad personality reflects Grossman’s excellent world-building. The whole point is that magic exists in the real world. There is no Voldemort to fight. This is not an escapist story. The Magicians is actually a novel-length meta-love letter to the fantasy genre. Here, this guy describes it way better than I ever could.
The Magicians is a tough book. I give it three stars. Frankly I would have liked it better if it was told from the perspective of Alice, Quentin’s girlfriend. She is barely sketched out but is way cooler than Quentin could be in his wildest dreams. She has a badass back story and is a way better magician than Quentin (see also: Hermione). And that brings me to the feminist shit.
The Bechdel test is a useful tool to examine the presence of female characters in movies. In order to pass the Bechdel test, a movie must have at least two named women in it, who talk to each other, about something other than a man. This is a fun link about the Bechdel test for movies.
Fail, fail, fail fail fail. I was happy to find that there are plenty of lady characters in The Magicians. They are however mainly extras. Quentin’s friend group includes two whole ladies, both of whom he bones! The character of Janet is well drawn and pretty interesting, but I can’t say for sure she ever actually talks to Alice, the other friend. So yeah, no.