The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman
I finally did it! I finished Lev Grossman’s Magician’s Trilogy. Unfortunately, I feel sort of ambivalent about the series. I disliked the first book, loved the second book, and felt lukewarm about the final book. I should preface this review by making clear that I read the first book and listened to the final two books as audibles. I truly hated the audio and this may have colored my view of the entire series.
The Magicians Trilogy is one of those series that people seem to either love or hate. The critics generally love these books but if you look at goodreads or amazons, the ratings seem split. The trilogy is comprised of The Magicians (2009), The Magician King (2011), and The Magician’s Land (2014). The books follow the story of Quentin Coldwater, a young man who is accepted into an exclusive school for magicians. Over the course of the books, Quentin discovers that a magical land from a fictional series is real. He and his friends become rulers of this land, go on quests, and face the potential destruction of the land. With nods to Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and the Chronicles of Narnia, Grossman reworks the stories of these books into a fantasy series for adults that blends gritty reality and fantasy. Here are my reviews for each of the books in the series:
Synopsis (from Amazon): Mixing the magic of beloved children’s fantasy classics (from Narnia and Oz to Harry Potter and Earthsea) with the sex, excess, angst, and anticlimax of life in college and beyond, Lev Grossman’s Magicians reimagines modern-day fantasy for grownups. Quentin Coldwater lives in a state of perpetual melancholy, privately obsessed with his childhood books about the enchanted land of Fillory. When he’s admitted to the surreptitious Brakebills Academy for an education in magic, Quentin finds mastering spells is tedious (and love is even more fraught). He also discovers his power has thrilling potential–though it’s unclear what he should do with it once he’s moved with his new magician cohorts to New York City. Then they discover the magical land of Fillory is real and launch an expedition to use their powers to set things right in the kingdom–which, naturally, turns out to be a much murkier proposition than expected.
My thoughts: ★★.5 star rating (out of 5). I really wanted to love this book, especially after it received so much critical acclaim. However, the characters were so unpleasant that I didn’t care what happened in terms of plot. Reading about spoiled, pretentious, and angst-ridden, college-aged (and younger) individuals is not really something I find that appealing in my 30s. That said, I liked Grossman’s concept for the book: adapting the genre for adults and making a tribute to some great children’s literature. Regardless of how you feel about the symbolism inherent in the Chronicles of Narnia, it’s hard to deny that they are simply great stories and Grossman uses these stories as fuel for his own stories. Grossman has degrees in comparative literature from Harvard and Yale and it shows in this book. The writing was very strong and I loved all the literary references. Clearly, I was in the minority in my dislike of the book. It was published in 2009 and was a New York Times bestseller and one of the New Yorker’s Books of the Year.
Find it here: The Magicians
The Magician King:
Synopsis (from Amazon): Quentin, Eliot, Janet, and Julia are now the High Kings and Queens of Fillory, a fantastic realm not unlike Narnia, and they pass their days “deliquescing atom by atom amid a riot of luxury.” To ease his royal boredom, Quentin embarks on a quest with Julia. Despite his romantic visions of heroic feats and easy accolades, the quest goes horribly awry, and they find themselves back in the depressingly real world of Chesterton, Massachusetts. With the help of seedy underground magicians, a dragon, and a young boy named Thomas, they undertake a desperate journey back to Fillory.
My Thoughts: ★★★★ (out of 5). This book felt quite different from the first in the trilogy in that it allows readers inside the heads of two main characters. Told with alternating viewpoints, the characters were significantly less whiny (although this is less true about Quentin), more mature, and more relatable. Julia’s storyline was interesting, although I was horrified by what happened in her storyline. I enjoyed this book primarily because of the exploration of psychological aspects.
Find it here:The Magician King
The Magician’s Land:
Synopsis (from Amazon): In The Magician’s Land, the third book in Lev Grossman’s Magicians series, Quentin Coldwater returns as a jaded, slightly humbled, white-haired 30-year-old whose life hasn’t turned out exactly as he thought he would–exiled from both the magical land of Fillory and then fired from the magic school Brakebills in quick succession. The series, infused with heavy doses of Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, and Lord of the Rings, used these fantasy tropes in the first two books to explore adolescent alienation and twenty-something excess. Now, Grossman ushers the sarcastic, pretentious, and flawed cast of magicians into a painful maturity. Traumas from their youth tinge their life with regret, love lost doesn’t stay lost, and magic–which despite making almost anything possible–doesn’t simplify the complexity of adulthood.
My Thoughts: ★★★ (out of 5). I thought this book was okay but disappointing after book two. It was a decent ending to the series, but nothing overly memorable for me, and at times while listening, my mind wandered. As I look back over the series, I realize that I found the female characters to be much more interesting, complex, and likable and I didn’t really care for Quentin. In this final book, the focus returns to Quentin and this was perhaps why I once again felt less engaged in the plot.
Find it here: The Magician’s Land
Note about the audio: Bramhall’s narration of this book made me want to my gouge out my ears. I’m sure he’s fabulous narrating other books and he has won several audio awards, but the decision to cast an older actor to narrate what is mostly dialogue of a group of young adults is mind boggling. His rendition of the female characters is truly horrendous, and don’t even get me started on his attempt at Poppy’s Australian accent. One friend most accurately captured it when she described it to me as “Hopper from dish network.” Bramhall was slightly better for book three (perhaps because of the reduced appearance of Poppy and no female point of view).
Overall: This is not the series to turn to if you are looking for something completely original. The trilogy was meant as a tribute and Grossman has been pretty clear that his ideas for the series were based on making an adult version of some famous children’s fantasy books. Grossman wanted to make a book series that reflected what would happen if you took ordinary young people and plopped them into a world of magic. It bothers me to hear people complain that they didn’t like the series because it was a knock off of Narnia. You can check out Goodreads to see the litany of reviews where this is the primary complaint. It’s like hearing people say that Wicked (Maguire) is a knockoff of the Wizard of Oz.
The series is very well written and based on an interesting premise. The literary references are fun and the books can be fairly engaging. Just keep in mind that the characters are hard to like, angst-ridden twenty-something year olds whose behaviors can grate on you making it hard to care what happens to any of them (unless you are an angsty twenty something yourself).
Trigger Warnings: You should be aware that there is some graphic violence in this series and some fairly graphic sexual violence. Not terrible compared to some other books but still a factor. I do enjoy reading fantasy novels, but my one gripe about the genre is that women are often portrayed as either bodice ripping, big busted love interests or as the the target of trauma/violence to be rescued by the male hero. The second point occurs to the two main female characters in Grossman’s trilogy. It’s difficult to read. I think this is one reason why I love Terry Pratchett who made fun of how the genre has typically dealt with female characters.
The Magician’s trilogy is being made into a t.v. series that will air on Sy-Fy channel. I’ve never watched the Sy-Fy channel but I’m not sure it’s a good thing that the series will air on the same channel that brought you such gems as Sharknado. But, you can check out the trailer for yourself here:
We want to hear from you. Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Do you plan on watching the T.V. series?