I passed on reading this book when it first came out because I was underwhelmed by the author's first book Codex. The excessively negative reviews about The Magicians peaked my interest. The complaints these reviewers had actually made me want to read the book. The positive reviews confirmed my growing suspicion that I should read this book. Although I am late to the party I must say I am glad that I overcame my initial reluctance because I loved this book.
Unfortunately this book was marketed as an adult book for Harry Potter fans. There is some truth in this marketing scheme, but too many people who are ardent Harry Potter fans are not the proper readership for this book. One reviewer said how much he despised this book, but that the "hipsters" would like it. What! Wait! does that mean I'm a hipster reader. I'm finally... cool. I probably just lost my hipster status using the word cool.
I was afraid that this would be a year one, year two, etc. magical school book series. Not so. Grossman smokes through 5 years of Brakebills in quick order giving us highlights, but leaving a lean script that keeps the pages turning.
One of my favorite scenes is when the main character Quentin Coldwater and his friends are turning into geese to fly to Brakebills South in Antarctica. "Days, weeks, maybe months and years passed. Who knew or cared? Quentin had never experienced peace and satisfaction like this. He forgot about his human past, about Brakebills or Brooklyn. Why hang on to them? He had no name anymore. He barely had any individual identity, and he didn't want one. What good were such human artifacts? He was an animal. His job was to turn bugs and plants into muscle and fat and feathers and flight and miles logged. He served only his flock-fellows and the wind and the laws of Darwin. And he served whatever force sent him gliding along the invisible magnetic rails, always southward, down the rough, stony coast of Peru, spiny Andes on his port, the sprawling blue Pacific on his starboard. He had never been happier."
I actually found myself really thinking about what it would be like to be a goose.
Professor Mayakovsky the teacher at Brakebills South really turns boys and girls into men and women. It is the boot camp of magic. Mayakovsky sums it up to Quentin on his first day. "You need to do more than memorize, Quentin. You must learn the principles of magic with more than your head. You must learn them with your bones, with your blood, your liver, your heart, your deek. He grabbed his crotch through his dressing gown and gave it a shake."
Long before the reader gets to this point they will be well aware that they are not hanging out in Hogwarts, but I think this sentence illustrates the difference in approach that Grossman takes with Brakebills.
Grossman doesn't shy away from Harry Potter. He actually makes a couple of references to the Hogwarts series. They are books in the evolving reality of the world he creates for this book. Our heroes, be they too human, moments of bravery wrapped around acts of cowardice finally arrive in Fillory. I was least interest in this portion of the book which makes me wonder if I will like the follow up book The Magician King. I've underestimated Grossman before so at some point I will give it a try.
Most of the time I didn't even realize that I was reading a fantasy book. The characters reminded me of people that I went to college with. Grossman actually does a good job developing the characters. They are all interesting, flawed, very human characters that again made me believe in the reality of this world. I suppose because there is sex and copious alcohol consumption, although not flagrantly so, reviewers have made comparisons to Bret Easton Ellis. I will say all of the sex was in the context of the plot and even sometimes gave the plot a proper nudge. I have also seen comparisons to Donna Tartt and to me that is a closer comparison because the characters had more personality than what I experienced in Less than Zero.
If you are looking for Harry Potter even an adult Harry Potter you should probably give this book a pass. If you are looking for just a damn good edgy book with well developed characters and a compelling plot than pick up a copy and start reading. Before you know it you will have consumed 100 pages and will be stealing time from the rest of your life to finish the remaining pages.