The Magicians and The Magician King by Lev Grossman.
Says George R. R. Martin, author of A Game of Thrones: “The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea.”
That got your attention, didn’t it?
A few years ago, my aunt picked this book up in the store, saw Martin’s review on the back, and declared those to be fightin’ words. She bought it, loved it, and passed it on to me. I, admittedly, went into this book with my defenses up. Out of the six reviews on the back, three of them mention HP or JKR, and I was not prepared to take that lightly.
But I pretty quickly fell in love with the MC, Quentin, when I realized… he was me. In the very first chapter, Quentin thinks about how he isn’t actually walking down the freezing cold street with his friends, on his way to a college interview–no, he’s in Fillory. In Quentin’s world, there is a series of books that he read as a child, that everyone read and loved as children. Everyone had read them, just about everyone enjoyed them, but everyone had moved on–except Quentin. He’s incapable of moving on from that book series. He still loves them just as much, he’s obsessed, he wants to talk about them, but his friends get tired of him talking about them so much (grow up, Quentin, they’re kids’ books). That’s so me and Harry Potter.
The books take place in a beautiful world called Fillory, and that’s where Quentin goes to escape his life. Fillory is a magical place with talking animals and little kids for rulers, so it has more of a Narnia feel. But whatever.
It comes down to the same. Quentin is stuck in what would, to anyone else, be a happy life. He has friends, family, money, excellent grades and potential–but he wants Fillory.
Then he gets to go to a secret school to learn magic. Sounds familiar, eh? But while the Boy Who Lived started his magical schooling at age 11, Quentin starts his at age 17. Hogwarts is middle/high school, Brakebills is a university. That’s what George R. R. Martin’s review is referring to—this book is full of sex, drugs, and alcohol as the (literally) genius students learn magic, get bored, fall in love, and eventually fight for their lives.
Quentin, actually, is a pretty difficult dude to love sometimes. He’s clearly got some clinical depression going on, he complains about everything—he’s literally never happy, even once he gets to Brakebills. Sure, he enjoys it for a while, but it doesn’t last long and he’s always looking for something else to affect him, something else to get his heart racing. Never satisfied.
Then, years after graduating, he learns that Fillory is a real place.
You can’t go in thinking it’s going to be anything like HP. The book starts before Quentin learns about Brakebills, goes through his entire education there (five years of it), and gets him to Fillory. This sucker takes place over quite a few years, so it’s a big shift if you go in thinking, “Well, I guess we’ll get through year one…” No.
My favorite character is Eliot, one of Quentin’s classmates and eventual best friend. The way I’ve taken to describing Eliot is as such: He’s like if Sirius had a baby with Fred and George, and the baby was gay. Yeah, he’s that fabulous. And he’s what takes the book from “yeah, this is interesting and cool” to “holy wow, I love this book.” He’s one of those characters.
It’s been a few years since I read the book, but the other night, I finished the sequel, The Magician King. (Spoilers for the first book begin here.) I glanced down the first page, saw Eliot’s name, and made an inhuman-like sound. I have missed that boy.
The book opens on the kings and queens of Fillory: Eliot (the high king), Quentin, Julia, and Janet. They’re just, you know, hanging out and being kings and queens of
Narnia the beautiful, magical land they grew up reading and dreaming about, and loving every minute of it.
Well. Kind of.
Quentin is, predictably, getting bored with things. He loves living in his castle and being waited on hand and foot. He loves hanging out with his best friends all the time. He loves Fillory. But he misses Alice (of course) and he’s on the look-out for an adventure. He’s getting restless, as is his nature.
So when the kings and queens of Fillory witness a man inexplicably die right in front of them, Quentin sees his chance to shake things up.
The writing is hilarious and fun. Quentin is as complain-y as ever, but I felt like he was easier to read in this book. It might be that he’s grown on me, but I wasn’t rolling my eyes at him as much as I remember doing in the first book.
The plot is exciting and original, but not what I would consider the best—if only because it means we don’t see Eliot for about half the book. Julia and Quentin are returned (suddenly and unexpectedly) to Earth and, well, we go with them. The book is split up so that we follow Quentin and Julia in the present day as they struggle to get back to Fillory ASAP, and also get to go back and read Julia’s story—what happened to her between her failed Brakebills exam and when she meets Eliot, how she learned magic without the Brakebills instructors, and why she’s the mopey, quiet young woman who doesn’t use contractions in her speech that she is today.
I like Julia and everything, but Eliot.
Lack of Eliot lost the book a star. Parts of Julia’s story almost lost it another star, but Eliot’s actions at the end of the book saved that star. 4/5 GR stars, with a recommendation to check out the series. There is another book on the way (possibly two?) and honestly, I’ll probably Google the plot to see how much Eliot’s in the next one before I read it. Juuust sayin’.
Posted from my phone, so please excuse extra typos! ESJ