Syfy has recently begun showing their adaptation of Lev Grossman's The Magicians. I'm extremely fond of it so far and very interested in sharing my review of it. Heck, I even considered reviewing all of the individual episodes but don't have the time for it with all of my current projects. However, in anticipation of the first season ending, I've decided to review the original novel which inspired it all. I have mixed feelings regarding the story and its sequels but I think you'll enjoy my thoughts on it.
The premise follows Quentin Coldwater, a seventeen-year-old prodigy who is suffering (mild) a case of arrested development. Despite having a bright future ahead of him, he's obsessed with the children's books Fillory and Further. These books are transparent stand-ins for the Chronicles of Narnia, books I can't begrudge Quentin for being since I was similarly obsessed with The Wizard of Oz books at his age.
Quentin is disaffected by living a privileged life devoid of want or need but lacking in magic. He's, in fact, very much like plenty of the white upper-middle class kids who went on to become Goths or roleplaying game fanatics to get a taste of a life with inherent meaning. Quentin believes he's given the answer to his prayers when he receives an invitation to a Hogwarts-like university called Brakebills. Quentin just barely passes the entrance exams to enter but it opens him up to countless new worlds. His closest friend doesn't but Julia's story remains untold until the sequel.
Brakebills proves to be an astonishing place which can keep the attention of Quentin Coldwater for a time but in homage to Hogwarts, the kind of occasional horrific happenings are traumatizing. Likewise, being college-age students, they make stupid decisions which result in them ruining friendships that never recover. Sometimes, the events of the story dwell a little too much on the parody: "Welters" serves as the world's equivalent to quidditch and doesn't really add too much to the story.
Quentin, honestly, is a character I didn't much care for. Lev Grossman successfully captures how narcissistic and unlikable privileged students can be in college. Quentin is completely devoted to himself and his own understanding of magic with no real desire to do anything with it but have it. He's also a terrible boyfriend, not much better of a friend, and generally completely up his own posterior.
Adult readers with actual responsibilities will also be less-than-sympathetic to the whining of a young adult who has magic and never really had to work for anything in his life, complaining about how life just isn't awesome enough. Experiencing the setting through his eyes is sometimes trying as Quentin is, again, not that likable of a protagonist. Thankfully, I really enjoyed Quentin's supporting cast who are all more interesting characters than the lead.
It should come as no surprise the protagonists eventually reach Fillory, which is real alongside every other fictional location in the Multiverse. Quentin is initially overjoyed but this quickly turns to dismay as it turns out the land is haunted by a mutated Slender Man-like humanoid called "The Beast." The Beast stalked and murdered people inside his classrooms at Brakebills and is very much ready for Quentin's group in Fillory. Worse, Quentin and his group have been served up like lambs to the slaughter by a woman who has decided they are the Chosen Ones.
As deconstructions go, it's not really all that great of one for Narnia as it manages to lack all of the gonzo world-building which made Narnia great. This is intentional according to Lev Grossman but it weakens the connection to Lewis' creation. The fact he contrives a rather nasty reason for the Beast's mental degredation and attributes it to the Lewis stand-in also irritated me a great deal. I did, however, like the fact dangerous situations actually get unprepared and untrained youths killed, though. That was a nice bit of reality in the book's mostly played-straight genre conceits.
The fact this is a version of Narnia with no relationship to Christianity or not even a nod to the idea the Fillory books were preachy is a bit surprising as well. You might argue taking issue with Narnia's moralizing would be going for low-hanging fruit but the fact it wasn't addressed at all is surprising. I also felt the character of Jane Chatwick was underdeveloped even as you'd think Quentin would be as stunned to meet one of his childhood heroines as actually arriving in Fillory.
There's some really good moments spread throughout The Magicians and I love the handling of the magical system. Magic requires the finest brains and the keenest intellects to use but it's also something which defies reason. There's no way of properly define it and so it always remains, well, magical. Unfortunately, the books felt a bit too lilly white and somewhat underdeveloped on the implications of what magic is actually used for. Everyone who gains magic seems to use it for nothing in particular. You'd think we'd at least have magical stockbrokers or foreign aid workers or something.
In conclusion, The Magicians is a decent enough book which is weighed down by an unlikable protagonist as well as some parts which threw me. Some might decry the transparent use of a Hogwarts and Narnia stand-in but I think the deconstruction was pretty well done for the most part. It was good enough I wanted to return to the world after this volume, even though Quentin kept making me want to punch him in the face. Try it and see if you like it.