The Problem with Magicians

This is a post about the novel The Magicians by Lev Grossman. A forewarning, because I generally don’t expect my audience ever to read or otherwise experience the literature and other media that I describe, I try to give a full experience of what I’m trying to get across rather than hide what are traditionally referred to as “spoilers.” As such, if you do plan on reading The Magicians, you should consider not reading this post. If you’re not sure, there are plenty of other non-spoiler reviews on the web, I’m sure. You’ve been warned.

I liked The Magicians. It was compelling, it successfully added grit and dirtiness to the fantasy genre, although after A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s difficult to really think of anything with fewer than Game of Throne’s fifty-four character deaths as terribly dark. As much as Quentin, the main character, complained in his oddly fourth-wall-breaking dialogue about how dark his story is compared to Fillory and Further, a fictional equivalent of the Tales of Narnia, it still feels like a happy-go-lucky fun ride compared to what I’m used to. Nevertheless, in keeping with fantasy tropes it successfully took me to a different state of existence and allowed me to vicariously enjoy something I could never experience in my own mundane world. Plus there was a character named Alice, a hardworking, humble, responsible romantic lead who seemed so much like my Alice I broke my usual pattern of aloof disdain for everyone and everything that an author wants me to care about and allowed myself to actually get involved with her and the perennially self-absorbed and irresponsible protagonist Quentin’s romance.

Let me tell you one big issue with The Magicians. It’s an issue that links to something George R. R. Martin said in an interview, “Too much magic is like too much salt in the stew, then all you can taste is the salt.” Parts of The Magicians wowed me as a reader with a fascinating, detailed but not too detailed treatment of the incredible magic power that Quentin and his friends amass, culminating in an enthralling description of an on-foot race across Antarctica. Quentin had enough magic to run to the south pole in several days, but little enough that he was emaciated and barely lucid by the time he got there. When he tried to fly to the Moon he screwed it up and ended up heavily sunburned by the intense radiation of deep space. That’s fun stuff. But then when he’s in the magical land of Fillory, he’s taking ships places. There’s a magical elk he’s trying to catch and when it jumps onto the ocean, he doesn’t just fly after it and grab it, he has to actually go back and get a fully crewed ship. It makes for a much better story except that that story is no longer an option when the character would not believably take that path. One of Quentin’s compatriots describes trying to climb a fantastical building using very real-world methods, and it’s fun until you realize that he’s mysteriously forgotten that he, too, knows how to fly. Pay real attention to any plot of any Superman film and you will see the same pattern. To be honest, I was really expecting an interesting philosophical ending with the all-powerful wizards trying to decide what to do now that the laws of the universe were theirs to command. There was a little foreshadowing that seemed to suggest that might happen, but it never quite did. Instead, Grossman left moderately-sized plotholes rather than give up on having the best of both worlds – all powerful wizards and challenges that are only interesting if the people trying to best them aren’t all-powerful wizards.

This is why it’s challenging to write a good story about magic users. A common solution is to keep the magic on the outside. Give it to a side character with unclear motives like Dumbledore, Gandalf, or Merlin and keep it ill-defined. Harry Potter has magic, but he never learns any spells that make his challenges ridiculously easy. He has a small set that he mostly relies on like “lumos” and “expelliarmus” to give the sense of exciting magic without causing too much trouble in making plots that make any sense. Dumbledore does things that might mess up the plot if Harry could do them, so Harry doesn’t know how to do them, and we don’t see enough of Dumbledore’s challenges to really argue that he should have been able to get around them using his enormous powers. George R. R. Martin’s solution, as we mentioned before, is to keep magic extremely scarce. This is really the easy solution in a sense, so long as you’ve got a strong non-magical interest like an alternate imagining of the war of the roses. A tiny bit of magic is just the right amount of spice to make a medieval fiction into a gripping fantasy novel. Just be careful how you add it and not to add too much.

After writing all that, I read a few other reviews of The Magicians. It turns out there are some strong opinions about this story. A lot of fantasy readers complain about Quentin’s unlikability. It’s true, he is unlikable, and it’s true that it gets grating listening to him whine all the time and watching him repeatedly wreck his amazing life. However, I think it’s an important point that even magic doesn’t solve all of life’s problems if you can’t get a handle on what the problems in your life are in the first place. One of the negative reviews suggests that Quentin needs counseling, and I agree. It seems like with just a little psychiatric help, this story could be about a brilliant wizard who gets past his problems and manages to make things work with the love of his life instead of getting her killed in an ill-advised adventure.

In the defense of this book’s critics, I think that it overcorrects for the naïveté in conventional fantasy. Rather than portray a real world with all its flaws and beauty, it focuses heavily on the flaws, making for a read that most people seem to agree comes off as cynical. Alice is my favorite character not only because she shares a name and many qualities with my girlfriend, but because these are good qualities. She’s a genuinely compelling character, unlike her whiny protagonist boyfriend. She has her own neuroses, but instead of just being ruled by them she fights them and wins, and then she starts working on Quentin’s neuroses and it seems almost like she’ll break through until she ends up dead.

When Alice is gone there’s nobody else to replace her. After Alice there seems to be no voice left for values higher than consuming enormous amounts of alcohol and other drugs, flaunting obscene wealth and engaging rampant casual sex. Even In the 0.01% most wealthy and privileged people in the world, which the book readily admits Quentin and all his friends represent, it seems like there should be a little more genuine aspiration than what died with Alice. Personally, I love a book that can make me feel like I’m in a harsh, real world that itself doesn’t care about its inhabitants, but then I want to see, like we see in the real world, moments of beauty where the inhabitants, maybe just some of them, decide they do give a crap, and, maybe for just a moment, they remind us why life is worth living.

Cover image credit:


3 thoughts on “The Problem with Magicians”

  1. Great, as always, Sam. A compelling review with or without the book. Very thoughtful and interesting analysis about the roles of magic, darkness, and Alice in fantasy.
    Love, Dad

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