Well, that was quite a ride. I’ve come to the conclusion that calling this book Harry Potter in College does a disservice to Lev Grossman’s creativity and sets the reader up for false expectations. This story is a trilogy, but it does not cover three years in our protagonist’s college life. Instead the first book covers at least 6 years if not more of Quentin’s life. Instead this book is a mix of the idea of a Wizard School and the Chronicles of Narnia. Before I get deeper into that, one more thing to address: the way the main characters act.
I felt that our main characters were more realistic than Harry Potter and his ilk at the same or similar age. I didn’t need Harry to be foul-mouthed. The lack of profanity made it stand out when Ms Weasley called Beatrix a bitch. I didn’t need them to have sex in seventh year – I didn’t have sex in high school and neither did a lot of people I knew. But for a high schooler, the way that Harry acts about “kissing stuff” was just too unrealistic. Of course, in The Magicians our main character is a misanthrope and we really didn’t need The Boy Who Lived to have that baggage. In fact, while I do praise the general realism of the characters and their attitudes towards life, magic, and each other, we really do end up with a pretty unlikable bunch in this book. The only characters that ever had my sympathy were Julia and Alice.
So, plot-wise, yes there’s a magical college, but while in Harry Potter the school was almost a character in itself that you wanted to learn more about, in The Magicians the school is almost incidental. It’s almost a maguffin to get the kids together and to explain how Quentin ends up with magic. There’s almost no description of the teachers or the classes. And there aren’t really any fun little textbooks. What’s actually much more important than the college is the Narnia series’ distaff cousin of Fillory. It’s a series that’s also a Christian allegory about some kids who travel into a magical world and get quests. It’s what inspires Quentin and the others who don’t have magical parents when it comes to magic.
Rather than spend any more time spoiling a plot that does a good job throwing around red herrings (I was wrong about both who The Beast was and what happened to Alice’s brother), I want to talk about one more thing that makes the world of The Magicians so different from the world of Harry Potter. In Harry Potter there’s a whole mirror wizard world with its own government, courts, banks, shopping districts, and cute jobs like dealing with muggles who come across enchanted objects. The Magicians has none of that. It takes place in the real world and there is no magical parallel. When the kids graduate they’re sent off into the world to do whatever they want. They literally have the ability to make their wishes manifest, so they don’t need to have jobs if they don’t want to. While some magicians find fulfillment in helping to keep the world from becoming too craptastic, many of them fall into periods of depression from a lack of a NEED to do anything. It hits many of the main characters and ends up being a key plot point more than once for Quentin – on both sides of the equation.
A quick thing that I couldn’t fit anywhere else – Grossman has written my favorite sex scenes in this book of any book I’ve ever read. By that I mean that Grossman refrains from describing any (most) of what’s happening and focuses on what it does to the characters psychologically – eg it was intense, it made characters x and y closer to each other, it was a way to pass the time, it was mechanical and had no feelings, etc. Nothing wrong with the usual style (eg the way GRRM writes sex in ASOIAF), but this is my favorite way to read about it. Most of the time, unless I’m reading erotica, I don’t want to think about what’s happening to what body-wise. I just want to know the characters had sex and how it has changed/enhanced/detracted from their relationship.
So, really, the best description for The Magicians is Harry Potter x The Chronicles of Narnia in a grimdark setting. I think it’s worth a read, Grossman’s writting is witty and had me wishing I could finish the book in one sitting. Just go in knowing that this book isn’t going to lift your spirits with thoughts of a parallel world you could go into and take an online quiz to see where your hat would sort you. It’s realistic and that provides a story that can be heartwarming, but can also be pretty darn effed.