Title: The Magicians
Author: Lev Grossman
Release Date: 2009
Book Description: NOW A MAJOR TV SERIES
In a secret world of forbidden knowledge, power comes at a terrible price …
Quentin Coldwater’s life is changed forever by an apparently chance encounter: when he turns up for his entrance interview to Princeton he finds his interviewer dead – but a strange envelope bearing Quentin’s name leads him down a very different path to any he’d ever imagined.
The envelope, and the mysterious manuscript it contains, leads to a secret world of obsession and privilege, a world of freedom and power and, for a while, it’s a world that seems to answer all Quentin’s desires. But the idyll cannot last – and when it’s finally shattered, Quentin is drawn into something darker and far more dangerous than anything he could ever have expected …
-From Book Depository. Purchase here (affiliate link)
Well, the time has come. I’m officially doing my first PotterAlike review! For more information on the PotterAlikes project, check out my initial post here. The first part of this post will be a spoiler-free review of the book, where I will assign my score based on how much I enjoyed the title. After my review is complete, I will be delving more into the similarities and differences between The Magicians and the Harry Potter series. Note that, while I will try to keep the plot details to a minimum during the PotterAlikes portion of the review, I may need to give some elements away in order to make an accurate comparison.
My history with The Magicians is lengthy and goes back to the book’s initial release. When it first came out, my family picked up a copy because it was being marketed as “Harry Potter for adults” by the bookstore and we thought we would enjoy it. After about twenty pages, both my parents and I called it quits and sold the book back, assuming we would never read it.
Fast forward to 2019 and I just started the PotterAlikes project. I knew that this meant I would have to tackle The Magicians eventually, so I picked up a copy of the book and went in with low expectations. If I’m being honest, even with the lowest of possible expectations, I was still disappointed.
I like to start reviews off on a good note, so let’s talk about the positives of the book first. Regardless of my thoughts on other aspects of the book, I think Lev Grossman built a compelling and engaging world. As I was reading, I was fascinated by how the magic system worked and wanted to know as much as I could possibly learn about the history of the school in which the characters attend.
Apart from my general praise for the overall worldbuilding, however, there’s a lot that I disliked about this book. My biggest problem is that I had a lot of trouble with the writing style. Lev Grossman writes in a third-person format that I found kept a lot of distance between myself, as the reader, and the inner thoughts of the characters. It’s a stylistic decision, of course, but I would have preferred either a first-person narration or third-person with more access to what the characters are thinking at a given moment, as it would have helped give me any sort of connection to the protagonist and his friends.
This leads me into the characters. On the whole, they all felt like carbon copies of the same person. I couldn’t differentiate between who was speaking at a given moment if my life depended on it, and none of them seemed to have any motivation behind their actions apart from acting as a device to move the plot forward. The protagonist, Quentin, had the personality of a wooden board, often dragging down every other character he interacted with to the point where everyone was just chronically moping about for two-thirds of the story. Given that the characters and their relationships with one another seem to be the driving force behind this book, a severe lack of development for anyone grinds the title to a halt on more than one occasion. That said, I will give a shout-out to Alice here, as she was the only person in the book that ever had a unique thought and I actually kind of liked her at times.
Finally, while I enjoyed the worldbuilding, I did not engage with the plot at all. The general premise of the book, as far as I can understand, is that it is meant to be about how awful the world is, even when magic exists. It’s likely even meant to be a direct counter to the overly cheerful children’s fantasy genre, where everyone is saved by the magical fairy princess. The problem is, I want to live in the happy and fantastical world that these series dream up for me. I’m not interested in the counterpoint Grossman is trying to make, and find it to be too pretentious for my tastes.
I tried so hard to like this one, but it was just not for me. The dull characters, weird writing style, and the slow plot just combined into one huge package of everything I personally dislike in one book. If you enjoy fantasy books that read more like literary fiction, then you may have better luck with this title than I did. For what it’s worth, while I have no interest in continuing with the series, I’ve heard that the second and third books in the trilogy are far more beloved than this one. For me, however, I’d much rather go watch the TV series and see if I enjoy it more.
This entire book read like a huge bait-and-switch. The first portion of the story really did feel a lot like Harry Potter for adults, which is exactly how the series tries to sell itself. Quentin finds out that he can do magic and begins studying his craft at a special university. The problem here, however, is that the magic school is only the setting for the first half of the book. After this point, the narrative shifts and the rest of the book is more aptly compared to The Chronicles of Narnia through utilizing a fictional book series that involves a place called Fillory that is clearly inspired by Narnia. Selling this title to be at all similar to J.K. Rowling’s fictional universe feels blatantly dishonest of booksellers everywhere.
What is similar to Harry Potter? Well, truth be told, not a lot. There is a strong friendship group that develops through the story, but without strong characters, Quentin and Alice will never live up to the likes of Harry and Hermione. Quentin wasn’t orphaned and no one was trying to live up to any magical prophecies. Again, the story was purposefully angling to be far closer to the Narnia series, so the similarities between the characters themselves and the overall plot are much stronger when keeping that series in mind.
Of course, it takes more than simply having a magic school to be considered a strong readalike. While I still believe the similarities are few and far between, the closest The Magicians comes to being a true PotterAlike is in the worldbuilding. Grossman’s detailed magic system really did remind me of Harry Potter, as they’re practicing precise hand and finger movements in a similar manner to the measured and practiced flicks of wands. J.K Rowling’s world is well thought out and expands far beyond the four walls of Hogwarts, and while Grossman wasn’t as successful with this overall, this is where the book excels, both as an overall narrative, as well as a readalike.
PotterAlike Quality Rating: 2/5
As I said in my review earlier, I have no intention on continuing on with the series. For me, this book failed as both an interesting read and as a PotterAlike, so there’s nothing that ties me to trying the sequels. Since the rabid addiction of the fanbase is a large part of what made Harry Potter so culturally relevant, I’d say that my disinterest in trying the other books also speaks to its failings as a readalike.
To wrap this up, I hope you liked my first of many PotterAlike reviews! I’m definitely going to switch up the format and try different styles of reviews as time goes on. While I’m sad that I started on a rather sour note, I also started with this book on purpose, as I suspect this will be the only book on this list that I actively dislike on this level.
What are your thoughts on the PotterAlikes project or The Magicians? Let me know in the comments below!