While definitely entertaining, The Magicians is somewhat unoriginal and largely lacking in plot and character development. Normally, I find unoriginality to be a forgivable sin, especially when an author chooses to pay homage to great works, as Grossman did. However, combined with the latter transgressions, the work falls flat.
The trope of a dissatisfied teen finding a way out of his uninspired life into a magical world is a deserved classic. However, I find it difficult to believe that such a change would leave that character so static. Quentin, we are told rather than shown, does not change in a substantial way through four years at Brakebills or a year post-graduation. Watching Quentin retain his angsty demeanor despite these incredible life changes is frustrating at best and brought to mind another angst-ridden teen who wanders his way around New York. Even worse, the supporting characters were so flat that few of their actions made much sense beyond serving as people with whom Quentin could interact.
Where the book shone was in the description of actual events. Grossman embedded some details that captured the imagination and made the magical world of Brakebills (especially Brakebills South) come alive. Even the most mundane objects refuse to be familiar:
a silver statue of a bird that seemed to be twitching. “Poor little thing,” he said, petting it with his large hands. “Someone tried to change it into a real bird, but it got stuck in between. It thinks it’s alive, but it’s much too heavy to fly.” The metal bird cheeped feebly, a dry, clicking noise like an empty pistol. Fogg sighed and put it away in a drawer. “It’s always launching itself out of windows and landing in the hedges."The gaps in plot development, however, leave one grasping for a thread to connect all of the events. Frequently I felt myself putting back on my teacher cap, entreating Grossman to show us rather than tell us that the students and staff had a hard time recovering from the intrusion of evil into their idyll or how the students drifted following graduation. Prior to these events there was no baseline for normal and little description of behavior afterward to indicate a major change. I would gladly have read a second volume in exchange for the missing details.
The most heavy-handed allusion (I'll use this term loosely) in the work is to C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. Had Grossman used this reference to show Quentin's values or inquisitiveness, it is one that could have been hugely successful. As it was, the repeated allusions simply made the eventual trip to Fillory inevitable. This adventure smacks of Quentin's last opportunity to mature, a mystery left to the sequel, which I still don't want to read.
Though I found the work to be lacking in literary merit, it is entertaining. The events Grossman focuses on are intriguing and the light treatment plot and character development receive make it easy to breeze through. I also have a strong suspicion that it would seem less contrived and obvious to someone who had explored fewer classic works, a suspicion largely confirmed by my sister who had not read Gulliver's Travels, Catcher in the Rye, or any of The Chronicles of Narnia. The passing nod to Harry Potter as Grossman takes his protagonist to a magical school provides an excellent point of departure.
P.S. I'm glad to find I'm not the only one who found this work lacking. Billy's only comment in 2010 was "fail," which I'll second.
P.P.S. My sister has indignantly informed me that she has read The Chronicles of Narnia. My mistake, sorry!