I have to come clean – when I read the first book in this series, The Magicians, I had very mixed feelings about it. The writing was excellent, no doubt about it, and I read through the book very quickly. But at the end, when I put it down, I couldn’t tell if I had liked it or not.
The problem is: Grossman takes fantasy worlds similar to Harry Potter, Narnia, and others, and brings them into a very modern setting. Young magicians are given an entrance exam to see if they will be accepted into the magical college of Brakebills. A fantasy world from a series of children’s books, known as Fillory, turns out to be real. And the magicians must learn their own powers to navigate in this magical world. Except along the way they get lost a lot, and there is quite a bit college-age experimentation with drugs, alcohol, and sex. The characters make an unending list of pop culture references. Their adventures seem to meander around with no clear objective. This is not how I expect my fantasy novels to play out.
I like Harry Potter because none of the wizards uses a cell phone, even outside of Hogwarts. They don’t use magic to throw crazy parties fueled by controlled substances. There’s a timelessness about the Harry Potter books, and the Narnia books, that is quaint and comfortable. Is it more realistic that young people would misbehave a bit when learning to harness great powers? Sure. But that’s not what I’m used to finding in my fantasy novels.
At the same time, it really was a well-written book, and I couldn’t help but get excited for the follow-up. As it turns out, I enjoyed the second one more. For one thing, there’s a lot less of directionless magicians sitting around getting high. And for another, I knew what I was getting myself into.
This time around, when the epic quest failed to materialize in quite the way the characters expected it to, I wasn’t annoyed. I was entertained. The magicians are kings and queens of Fillory now, but they still have trouble carrying out your basic heroic adventure. And the ways in which they fail are sometimes hilarious. They’re more self-aware now, though, and spend more time actively seeking out answers instead of just biding time. If you or I were thrown into a fictional world and expected to not only save the day, but to determine what was threatening it in the first place, we wouldn’t be likely to do a much better job.
There is also a sub-plot that intrigued me almost more than the main plot. Julia was denied entrance to Brakebills in The Magicians, but continued to show up throughout. It was apparent that she had learned magic via other means, and not the clean, safe kind of magic taught at Brakebills. There was a dark mystery surrounding her, and this book finally fills in the missing pieces of her education. And that story had me enthralled.
Some of the issues remain – the pop culture references are relentless, and while some of them are spot-on, others just get in the way of the story’s flow. There’s a bit of meandering, and it can sometimes be difficult to see where the story is heading (because nobody in the story has any clue, either). I had a teensy issue with a Hebrew sentence being identified as Aramaic at a pivotal moment (though from what I remember of the first book, the correct language was mentioned last time). But overall, the writing draws you in and keeps you turning the pages. If you aren’t expecting it to follow the neat, sanitized framework of Harry Potter, you should enjoy it quite a bit.
This book managed to make me want to go back and read the first one again which, frustratingly, I can’t do just yet. I never bought a copy because I was so conflicted about it, and my main book supplier just shut down. But I’ll be sure to do so now, and can’t wait for the next in the series. Recommended.
This book was reviewed from an advance copy sent by the author/publisher.