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.