Lev Grossman, a senior writer and book critic for Time, is also the author of Warp and Codex ( July/Aug 2004).
The Story: Unless you grew up in a broom closet, you’ve heard this one before: a disaffected young person identifies more with the heroes of fantasy literature than with mortals in the real world, discovers the fantasy world is real and he is a vital part of it—and adventures ensue. This is exactly the scenario experienced by Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant young Brooklynite who, instead of going to boring old Princeton, is whisked away at the age of 17 to the Brakebills College of Magical Pedagogy in upstate New York. The age difference from Quentin’s literary cousins Harry Potter and the Pevensies of Narnia fame is crucial, because, instead of following a familiar narrative in which magic fulfills adolescent fantasies, Grossman uses the devices of these magical stories to delve into the difficulties of becoming an adult.
Viking. 416 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780670020553
Onion AV Club
"Plenty of fantasies have [treaded] on the ground broken by J. K. Rowling, C. S. Lewis, and Tolkien, but The Magicians is one of the few to really ponder the psychology of a talking bear. … The Magicians is the best urban fantasy in years, a sad dream of what it means to want something badly and never fully reach it." Todd VanDerWerff
"The Magicians is an homage to both J. K. Rowling and C. S. Lewis, as well as an exploration of what might happen if troubled kids were let loose in the supernatural realms they grew up reading about. Grossman (who is Time’s book critic) captures the magic of childhood and the sobering years beyond. They don’t call it disenchantment for nothing." Jeff Giles
"This gripping novel draws on the conventions of contemporary and classic fantasy novels (most obviously, those of J. K. Rowling and C. S. Lewis) in order to upend them, and tell a darkly cunning story about the power of imagination itself. … Quentin’s journey becomes an unexpectedly moving coming-of-age story in which he learns that magical worlds are much like the real one."
"Even if its author, Lev Grossman, weren’t a colleague and friend, I’d be fervently recommending The Magicians to any reader who fell under the spell of Narnia or Harry Potter as a child and looks back on it all with an adult’s ambivalence. … The Magicians is a grown-up’s book, one that reflects on the sort of questions you never think to ask about fantasy narratives as a kid, such as: Is it such a good idea to meddle in the politics of a strange country you barely understand?" Laura Miller
"A fairly spectacular semester abroad in Antarctica is one of the book’s great set pieces. … While this story invariably echoes a whole body of romantic coming-of-age tales, Grossman’s American variation is fresh and compelling." Keith Donohue
"It becomes a chore to slog through this homage to fantasy filtered through an ironic 21st-century sensibility, complete with sex and profanity. Nifty premise aside, Quentin and company never fully grab our attention." Deirdre Donahue
Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Part of the problem is Quentin, who remains—like his last name—chillingly placid amid the fantastic. Eventually, we have to wonder if anything could make the boy happy. The novel’s main weakness, though, is that so little happens." Vikas Turakhia
While Grossman’s novel may be appropriate for those who outgrew the Harry Potter books early, it is more clearly intended for readers like Salon.com critic Laura Miller, who aired her adult doubts about her favorite children’s literature in last year’s The Magician’s Book. Miller, along with most reviewers, found Grossman’s novel to be an interesting riff on J. K. Rowling and C. S. Lewis that also provided an entertaining story in its own right. A few reviewers found the angst of the book’s protagonist depressing or the author’s premise unimaginative, but the Onion AV Club said these critics are "missing the point. Grossman’s triumph is that he treats these magical worlds of childhood seriously." Perhaps we should dream again—and ignore the two critics who disliked the book.