Discussions about Lev Grossmans The Magicians invariably lead to comparisons with the Harry Potter books. Both are urban fantasy series about people who wield awesome magical powers, living in the same world as us and the schools where they were taught to use them. The similarities end there however. Hogwarts is a highschool and Brakebills is a college. While the Potter novels each recount a single year of school, The Magicians covers an entire fours years of college in the first book and the next two are all about growing up and life as an adult. One of the things I enjoyed about J.K. Rowlings books was how the language and themes of the books matured as the readers did. Lev Grossman treats his readers as adults from page one. The themes he explores are deep and complex, mostly about how we view the world and our relationships in it. Where most unpleasant things in the Harry Potter books happen in bloodless, Disney like manners or completely “off camera”, in The Magicians books they are violent, bloody and in your face. So I wouldn’t recommend it to readers still in primary school, but if you’re ready to graduate…
The first book, The Magicians, is told entirely in the third person from the viewpoint of Quentin Coldwater. Quentin is… the best way I can describe him is, he is a real person. He is an overachiever, a geek, top one percent of the top one percent academically, he is awkward and insular, self pitying… you’re going to like him, but he’ll get on your nerves sometimes. He thinks mostly about himself, how HE feels, how things affect HIM, but didn’t we all at that age? The government may say we’re adults, but we were all still pretty emotionally immature. Quentin is not an authors idealized hero. It’s as if Lez Grossman was asking himself “What kind of person would really be capable of doing magic? How would their mind work? How would they relate to other people?” and Quentin was his answer. You know how Alan Moore used The Watchmen to examine the psyche of masked vigilantes? That’s what The Magicians is for urban fantasy. He does the same thing for the school itself. Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy is like the most elite of ivy league schools. It has clubs and activities, cliques and couples, but it’s main focus is learning. Lev Grossman treats the school and magic the same way he treats his characters, he grounds it in as much realism as he can. Magic in his world is hard work. It requires study, research, intense training and practice, practice, practice.
One of the interesting things I found while reading the trilogy is that the first book focuses solely on Quentin. The second is split between Quentin and his friend Julia, the third between three people and also jumps back and forth in time.
After college, Quentin goes on ‘The Heroes Journey’, but what happens to people with magical talent who didn’t get their letter to Hogwarts? That’s a big part of the second book, The Magician King. Exploring the other side of this magical world, the people who couldn’t get in a a school to teach them but had to learn it on the streets. The less said about the third and last novel, The Magician’s Land, the better. It is just too complex to summarize neatly without giving a lot away.
Did SyFy ruin it by turning it into a TV series?
Nope. I mean it isn’t a 100% faithful adaptation, changes had to be made to suit the medium and some characters who had only small parts (or outright didn’t exist) in the books, but turned out to be popular in the series, saw their roles expanded. Sometimes writers and producers do a terrible job adapting a book series to screen, just using the name to attract an already established audience (Sword of Truth anyone?), but in this case they kept the core of the characters and their stories intact. The plots of the two versions tend to drift apart after the first book, but by then you’re invested in the characters and have no trouble going on the ride with them.
Jason Ralph makes a great Quentin and Olivia Taylor Dudley, Stella Maeve and Ajun Gupta are just too good to be given as little screen time as a direct from the book translation would have given them.
Which should you choose, books or TV? TV or books? Depends on what you prefer. I will say this about the differences between the two. The books are more introspective, you are in the heads of the characters and know what they are thinking, feeling, you know why they do the things they do. The books poses more questions to the reader than the TV show does. The TV series on the other hand is just a heck of a lot more fun. It is more of an exciting ride than the books, while not shying away from the mature relationships between the characters. I’d say pick which suits your mood. Or don’t pick, read the books and watch the show. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by either. Season four starts soon and apparently there’s a graphic novel coming out in July