If you write enough book reviews, eventually you start sounding like everyone you never wanted to be. Today, I'll be the annoying guy who brags about how he saw everything coming. That's right, I found this book utterly predictable from start to finish. Even the Arctic fox sex scene.
The Magicians is a very postmodern type of fantasy, deconstructing as it does the Narnian-style childhood fantasy of saving the world. It's one of those curiously self-aware books that nevertheless stays firmly on the other side of the fourth wall. It is meta. And with this comes a sort of candour necessarily absent from actual epic fantasy. This xkcd comic communicates the gist of The Magicians' theme if you're not yet inclined to read the entire book.
As far as this commentary on fantasy goes, The Magicians works. This is something that most people recognize, if only subconsciously. It may sound heroic to fantasize about killing monsters and enemies with a sword and magical spell. Yet in reality, killing, as war movies are so eager to drive home, is rarely glamorous. The Magicians is not "magic realism" so much as "magic hyperrealism."
There's more here than magic, though. Quentin finds himself a licensed magician at 21, set adrift in the world to make his own way and find a life worth living. As a university student, I'm acquainted with the notion that I'll put my five years into schooling, graduate, get a job, and that's my life. I'm also aware that, in all likelihood, it won't work out so smoothly and discretely. Instead, I'm going to have to make plenty of choices, plenty of compromises, and plenty of mistakes; if I persevere, I might find happiness. Quentin's problem is the paradoxical nature of being a magician: so much power, yet so little to do with the power. It's mirrored in the psychological fragility conferred upon any child who saves the world: what do you do if you've hit the epitome of your existence by 20?
There is one respect, however, in which I think Grossman drops the ball. He does a fine job analyzing fantasy itself, but he fails to go further and identify anything in contemporary society that drives our desire for escapist-yet-illogical worlds. He skirts close to this topic on numerous occasions but never embraces it. In fact, the parts of The Magicians grounded in reality are, upon closer inspection, hazy.
Quentin's parents are little more than abstractions. I think they have only three lines of dialogue in the entire text. Otherwise, we learn about them only from what the limited third person narrator says Quentin thinks about them. Such paltry characterization irked me while reading the book and continues to irk me, and it's a perfect example of how Grossman neglects the "real world" portion of The Magicians even when it may be the most important part. We're supposed to get the idea that Quentin feels unchallenged in school, neglected or ignored by his parents, and generally unhappy—but we only know this because we're told; Grossman never really shows us what's so boring about Quentin's life.
What I desire, and what The Magicians fails to provide, is a look at the social origin of the individual's obsession with escapist fantasy. It's not enough to simply start with the loner, imaginative archetype we see in Quentin and go from there; that's begging the question. After all, this entire book is about not taking fantasy worlds at face value, but it's asking us to take the origins of the desire for those worlds at face value.
There's also quite a few loose ends here. Far be it from me to insist that a book tediously explain every plot point! Yet I'm not satisfied with Julia's appearances—she just happens to have her life sent out of control by being rejected from Brakebills? Why? What exactly does she hope to gain by confronting Quentin? Most importantly, how did she end up finding Janet, Eliot, and Josh? Likewise, Dean Fogg's relationship with the world of Fillory is never made clear. Most of the magical community perceives Fillory as just another fictitious world. Yet Fogg recognizes the "woman with the braids," as Quentin describes her, who is inextricably connected to the Fillory tale.
When the loose ends do get resolved, Grossman tends to tie them up in a neat way. As I intimated at the beginning of the review, this leads to a certain amount of predictability: the identity of Emma Greenstreet's lovers, the identity of the woman with the braids, the fate of Quentin and Alice's relationship, etc. There are times when a book is so well constructed that its predictability doesn't matter; merely watching the events fall into place is a beautiful thing. The Magicians is not so carefully constructed, unfortunately; I would have preferred to be surprised.
For a book that is both fantasy and about fantasy, it's that lack of literary magic that prevents me from embracing The Magicians as a great work. It's competent, even interesting, but many of the seams still show. It's a shame, too, because Grossman has a flair for fun dialogue and a knack for well-placed expletives. Above all, what's needed is better characterization. Good characters are the glue that binds together the plot and the meta-fictional commentary. Unlike Douglas Coupland, Lev Grossman doesn't manage to create a cast of characters who are believable, albeit not probable. With The Magicians, there's too much smoke and not enough mirrors.