Quentin seems to have everything he needs to be happy: good friends, smarts, looks, sensible parents. But he’s not. Real life just isn’t enough. If only it could be more like Fillory, the Narnia-like magical land in the fantasy books that every child has read and dreamed about. But while other children stop dreaming about Fillory before their teenage years, Quentin secretly still longs for it.
Then suddenly he finds out that magic is real, and he can learn to be a magician. Instead of going to a normal college, he goes to a magical one, and does indeed learn magic. But magic has no magical power to make him happy. Magic gives you power, but without anything meaningful to apply that power to, a magician’s life can feel as meaningless as anyone else’s.
Ordinary people given magic remain ordinary. They make stupid decisions, make messes of their lives, make nothing of the opportunities they’re given. They long for something, and when they achieve it, realize it’s made them no happier.
This may make a great truth but it does not make a great book. Or perhaps it makes a great book, in some literary sense, just not one that’s fun to read. In fact, despite all the magic, it was ultimately a depressing book. Or perhaps it was depressing because of the magic? We expect fantasy literature to show us something magical, something different from this world. And here’s a so-called fantasy book that tells you that you ain’t gonna get it. Because of this, I suspect that people who don’t normally read or like fantasy are more likely to enjoy this book than fantasy readers.
I also found the storytelling in The Magicians unsatisfying. There is a lot of “tell, not show”. The world, the characters, the action, all remain at a distance, and I never get that sense of being transported into a different reality. A charitable interpretation would be that Grossman makes the book mirror Quentin’s state of mind. Just like Quentin always feels that he’s never really part of the world, that surely there should be something more to life, the reader feels the same about the book. Unfortunately I don’t think this is the case: indulging in weak writing just to make a point would be going too far. So I think it’s just a case of slightly weak writing.
There are some great ideas and some excellent scenes, and I kept hoping (like Quentin) that something would turn the whole thing around, but it never happened. A promising but unsatisfying book.