The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians: A NovelSummary: An adult look at what it would be like to be a magician, and get everything you could possibly want, and still not find meaning or purpose in life.

I tend to buy audiobook in groups at Audible.com.  They often have sales where you buy two and get one free, or buy four and get $10 off a future purchase.

In April it was a buy 4 and get $10 off a future purchase sale.  So I purchased, Shadows in Flight, And Both Were Young, Ready Player One and The Magicians.  Unusually for me, in less than two weeks, I have finished three and started the fourth.

In general, I don’t like to read much about fiction books before I buy them.  I want to know if they are mostly well reviewed and if people that I know liked them.  I have heard a lot of good press about The Magicians.  It is often compared to Harry Potter.  (Probably unfairly to both books.)  But other than that I did not know anything about it.

Quentin, like in Harry Potter, is offered the opportunity to attend a school of magic.  Quentin is 17 and ready to go to college.  He is a very bright student but has always been fascinated by magic.  He does not have a lot of friends, and so has spent a lot of time working on magical sleight of hand.

What he discovers at a real school of magic is that it is an awful lot of work.  But Quentin is used to hard academic work.  After a few years he has formed a close group of friends, eventually a girl friend and a deep understanding of magic.  But he is not satisfied.

In general I liked the parts of the book at school.  It is full of alcoholic (or near alcoholic) college students that sleep around, work hard, but are really unsure of what the purpose of their lives are.  Once they graduate, it gets worse.  (Some slight spoilers are ahead.)

They are magicians.  They can get anything they want. They have near unlimited access to money, power, sexual partners, alcohol, etc.  Up until now, nothing has really given their lives purpose or meaning.

Quentin has always been fascinated with the world of Fillory (blatant homage to Narnia).  Fairly late in the book, Quentin finds that Fillory is real.  Suddenly, his dreams are again possible and he might be able to fix the many parts of his life that he has screwed up.

But in this book, the boy who has had every dream come true realizes that none of it matters.  In the end, everything he thought he wanted did not give him meaning.  He is the boy (he never really feels like he has grown up to be a man, although he does many adult activities) that rejects all the toys and experiences that life can bring and instead chooses to sulk when that one more thing does not bring him happiness.

This is a hard book to like.  The characters are mostly unlikable (but well written and pretty fleshed out).  The story is depressing.  I was not impressed by the alcohol, drugs and sexed up Harry Potter.  I do understand why people like it, it is well written, but I feel worse off for having read it.

But still in the end, I am tempted to read the second book.  I am pretty sure it will be about the same, so I will probably talk myself out of it.  There is something here, but I just am not sure most people really want to slug through the book to try and figure it out.

Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

4 Comments

This is honest and I appreciate that. I haven’t read it, and yet have heard it circulated about so had on the “maybe” list. I like your term about “feeling worse off for having read it.” Well put. I felt like that after the film “Black Swan” (!) Am struggling lately with reading/watching films, even if they don’t edify faith,etc – ie. should we be oblivious? Can we take away something no matter what? Anyway … timely review as I was considering these. I know I can always come here for good insights and suggestions. Thanks Adam!

    I am not a professional reviewer or a literature prof (as you are) or a writer or even a theologian.

    But I do want to defend the right (and a bit more) to read what others find objectionable. I think we have different lines about what is and is not objectionable. Karen Prior Swallow took a lot of negative comments for discussing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on Christianity Today. I have not read that and probably will not. But I am glad she did and was able to discuss it well. But I agree we can’t be oblivious.

    I have family and friends that strongly objected to my reading the Hunger Games and promoting it. I thought there was real value in reading it and discussing it. The same with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Both of these are more concerned with violence than sex. I think it is interesting that many are more concerned with sex than violence (including myself). But at times I have found value in movies and books that others that I respect thought were just trash.

    I am hope I can extend grace to those that have different lines than I do.

      Adam,

      Found my way over here from the Out of Ur site….don’t know if you will think that is a good thing :)

      Anyway, I’m glad to see you reviewing this book. I read it and the sequel last year, so they run together a bit for me now. You are right that the second is much more of the same. I think the reason this book bothered me, while still being entertaining (to my lowest common denominator, honestly, I felt dirty after reading them) while I loved The Hunger Games, Cormac McCarthy, etc., was the worldview behind it.

      To me, it seems like Grossman is Quentin. He grew up reading Narnia, Harry Potter, etc. and then is kind of angry that the world isn’t really that way…that Narnia isn’t what he thought it was. He wants it to be true, but he lashes out at it for not being so.

      The problem is, he doesn’t buy the Christian worldview behind Narnia, nor the moral, good vs. evil in Harry Potter. The world he lives in and believes in doesn’t have good or evil, black vs. white…just different shades of grey. SO, he has to deconstruct the Narnia and Potter myths, but then he finds…..nothing. No reason for happiness, or morality. No purpose. I wouldn’t recommend this book to most people, but if you want to see the postmodern worldview on display in fantasy form…this book is it. My prayer is that Grossman finds that Narnia’s underlying myth IS true, and it gives us the hope, purpose and meaning that he is so obviously longing for.

      We do need people to review books like this, and movies like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It doesn’t mean any, or most Christians should read/watch them, but there should be a Christian presence in dialogue with the popular culture, which is an excellent expression of the values of our culture. Hopefully we can speak some truth into the world by taking the culture seriously and presenting the Gospel as a powerful worldview that answers many of the questions pop-culture raises.

        I subscribed to your blog yesterday :)

        I completely agree with your take on this. He lacks purpose because he lacks hope. He lacks hope because he doesn’t know Christ.

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