The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman:
The Magicians – 2009
The Magician King – 2011
The Magician’s Land – 2014
When The Magicians was first released in 2009, the shorthand buzz about the book was that it was “Harry Potter for grown-ups”. And this is kinda, sorta true, in some ways. In The Magicians, main character Quentin Coldwater heads off for a college interview and instead, suddenly finds himself taking the entrance exam at Brakebills University, a school of magic. Because magic is real, and Quentin is a magician. What follows is Quentin’s immersion in his magical education… so kind of Hogwarts-y — except in the world of Brakebills, sex and drugs and plenty of angst feature into the story too. For every moment of starry-eyed wonder at the magical world he finds himself in, Quentin also experiences neuroses and self-doubt and pain and ennui.
I love this Three-Panel Book Review by Lisa Brown, which really says it all:
At the time that The Magicians was published, it was intended to be a stand-alone… but a few years later, author Lev Grossman continued the tale. Books two and three of the series, The Magician King and The Magician’s Land, are a lot less Harry and a lot more Narnia. The action is all post-college, and the tone is adult. Yes, there are still moments of magic and wonder, but Quentin lives in a dark world in which there is struggle, disappointment, loss, and pain.
And quests. Did I mention quests? In the 2nd and 3rd books, Quentin and his friends find themselves in various worlds, ours and others, in which everything is on the line and apocalypse looms. But of course, there are also amazing adventures, such as a sea voyage to the end of the world (very Prince Caspian, at least in the broad strokes of plot outline) and a journey to an upside down world underneath the one on the surface.
The supporting characters are, for the most part, simply marvelous. I especially love Elliot, who we first meet at Brakebills and who goes in some very unexpected directions. The character of Julia, Quentin’s childhood friend who does not get into Brakebills, but instead finds her own path to magic, is dark and disturbing, and her transformation over the course of the trilogy is perhaps the most startling and extreme.
I’m leaving out most of the essential plot points about these books, because I think this is a series best read unspoiled. But read it, you should. It’s a marvelous journey from childhood to adulthood, with a rich fantasy world that’s brilliantly developed and articulated. The characters are terrific, and the writing is funny, arch, and moving.
It’s also quite deliberately full of nods and winks to its inspirations. Quentin and friends know the worlds of Narnia and Harry Potter, and the text is full of little references. A favorite moment for me, late in the trilogy, comes when Quentin is entering a potentially dangerous situation, and says to his companion:
Wands out, Harry.
Sigh. Little things like that always make me happy. (PS – it’s worth noting that this is completely ironic, as wands do not actually factor into the magical stylings in The Magicians. There’s also no one named Harry, in case you wondered.)
You may be aware that The Magicians has been adapted for TV. The first season of The Magicians aired on the Syfy channel this past spring, and I thought it was pretty great. In fact, watching the TV show is what spurred me to re-read book 1 and then finally finish the trilogy. Here’s the trailer:
The show definitely differs in some pretty significant ways from the books, and incorporates later elements from the book trilogy into the first season, but much of the flavor comes through. I’ll be interested in seeing how they keep it going in the 2nd season, and beyond (assuming there’s a beyond).
Wrapping it all up…
I’m so glad I returned to the world of The Magicians. When the 2nd book came out several years ago, it had already been a while for me since I’d read the first, and I just couldn’t generate the interest at the time to dive back into the story. I’m glad that I took the time now to go back to the beginning and read the trilogy all the way through from start to finish.
In my opinion, this is a trilogy that’s worth reading as a whole, either one after another or with only short breaks in between. Keeping the continuity going is important, both in terms of the the sheer amount of detail that carries over from book to book, as well as for the sake of enjoying the building mood and character developments over the length of the trilogy.
But whichever way you choose to read The Magicians books — just read them. I highly recommend this trilogy for anyone who grew up on children’s fantasy books… and secretly hoped that their worlds were real.