First published in 2009
My rating: 3.5 out of 5
The Short Of It:
I enjoyed this book about a secret university for magicians, but not quite as much as I expected to. I'm glad I read it, but I'm not sure if I'll continue the series.
The Long Of It:
I've seen "The Magicians" described as Harry Potter for adults over and over again, and while the connection is obvious -- both are about secret schools of magic, a group of friends, and magic manipulated for dark purposes -- "The Magicians" lacks a lot of the things that make Harry Potter special.
Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy is for college-age students, and apparently with age vanishes all the whimsy of a school for magicians. There's no cozy atmosphere, no pumpkin pasties or mail delivery owls, and in their place is a crew of competitive, jaded, moody teenagers who drink to excess and ponder existential questions like the key to happiness in this miserable world.
Brooklynite Quentin is our main character, and we follow him as he excels at Brakebills, graduates, pines for meaning even as he plows ahead with a completely hedonistic lifestyle in Manhattan, and as he finally finds that adventure he's been waiting for his whole life -- which just so happens to take him to another land filled with talking animals (including bunnies!), horse-drawn carriages, mythical beings, and one corrupted man bent on taking it all over.
One of the reasons I didn't find the book to be as engrossing as I'd hoped is that I felt like it focused too much on the wrong things. Instead of Quentin philosophizing and whining incessantly about his life lacking purpose and happiness, I'd rather have had more worldbuilding: I wanted to know more about Brakebills and how magic is taught there; what kind of magic, magical implements and magical creatures exist; what kind of magical government is there? Instead of trailing after Quentin & Co. drinking and screwing their way through NYC, I'd rather have spent more time getting acquainted with the magical land of Fillory. That point goes hand-in-hand with Grossman's writing, which started off strong but was often a bit wordy and tangential. I actually skimmed from time to time.
Despite my gripes, I did enjoy this book. It was creative and interesting (can you imagine living for months as a goose?), and it was nice to read a magical fantasy involving pseudo-realistic characters. And, though it was a bit over the top, I also liked the "adult" element: bad language, sex, drinking, drugs, intelligent conversations, general malaise with the idea of adulting. I'm not sure if I'll continue the series (though I do admit that I'm curious about where Grossman takes the story) but I am glad I finally read "The Magicians." I'd recommend it -- just maybe not so much as a "Harry Potter" equivalent for grown-ups. I think I would've enjoyed it more if I hadn't gone in with that expectation.