Quentin has essentially been a test taker all his life. That’s not to say hes been especially smart or curious necessarily, but rather he went at things with tremendous dedication and was good at monotonous practice. It’s also what made him good at magic tricks, as really all they take is a tremendous amount of dull repetition. Still, he’s always felt the world to be tremendously lacking and far too boring. He grew up reading ‘Fillory and Further’, books about kids disappearing to another far more interesting world, and while logically he very well knew that it was just fiction, somewhere deep down inside, he still felt that there had to be something more to the world. Hence, when things get strange during his Princeton interview and he ends up getting whisked away to a mysterious place where he was asked to simply take a written test as various laws of physics and causation were defied around him, it was as if he had just reached what he had been waiting for his entire life.
And of course he passed. Instead of going to an Ivy school he would now go to Brakebills, school of magic. Though ultimately, it turned out that magic wasn’t quite as magic as he thought. It too required tremendous amounts of learning and repetitive practice. Being good at these seemed to be what tied magicians together. Together with his peers he managed to push his way through all five years of college, tackling a number of ridiculous challenges, facing incredibly dangerous situations, and making a good amount of friends, together with those in his specialization, the ‘physical kids’, and even going out with a girl named Alice.
But once he graduated, things were tremendously boring. Life felt pointless. And some major mistakes were made. Just having the ability to do magic didn’t seem to make the world that much more interesting. It was still certainly very dull. However, just when it looked like things would fall apart catastrophically, an old classmate, Penny, bursts into the lives of him and his friends telling him he’s found a way to get to Fillory. Everyone calls it absolute nonsense at first, but eventually they get there. Fillory is every bit as strange as it was described in the books. But there’s always more to stories than what gets written down, and Fillory has quite the sharp edge too. Their journeys through Fillory began, along which the various members of this groups save gods, defeat Beasts, stop wars, become royalty, find old friends who eventually become divine, prevent all of magic from collapsing, get exiled, steal suitcases, do their best to stop the world from ending, and in the end learn that not just Fillory, but all of life is more magical and amazing than they expected, and not because of the actual magic.
The Magicians Trilogy is ultimately a parody and extension of an entire genre. The two most prominent works that it is derivative of are Harry Potter with the magical school aspect, and Narnia, with the magical land that people can be pulled into to go on quests. But this is hardly all this series takes from, and furthermore it doesn’t try to hide that it’s taking quite a lot from other works. Rather, it is quite blatant about it. But because it is so obvious in being derivative in its foundation, it does incredibly well and taking the common aspects of the genre that are so well known and taking them in completely new directions. For example, the system of magic is a lot more mathematical, scientific, and for lack of a better word rigorous than say Harry Potter, and the fact that it involves a tremendous amount of dull repetition and rote memorization is pounded in, as well as the fact that Quentin does quite well at it due to being a good standardized test taker, which takes quite a bit of the magic away from the magic and making it mundane, but by the end seem to be making the opposite true, and that even the mundane can have a good bit of magic to it.
The core theme of the novel is that fantasy is just another facet of the world and not something entirely different, that fantasy isn’t all that fantastical. It is still quite amazing, don’t get me wrong. The magic that exists in our world as well as the entire magical world of Fillory are developed immensely well with a great deal of depth to the systems, settings, and fantastical events. And going in search of such fantasy is truly a worthwhile endeavor. But in the end, its not the magic itself that makes something fantastical, as even the magical world of Fillory in darker circumstances can completely lose it’s luster, rather the journey that people take, people they interact with, and mentality therein is what makes it worthwhile.
The novel very much is a coming of age story. Quentin very much is looking forward to their being more to the world, and upon finding it, discovers it still doesn’t make him happy, and searching for more, which continues somewhat endlessly till the cycle is broken by the incredibly long journey he goes through, and he discovers that he needs to take things much more slowly and in stride, and begins to see things less as fantastical and real, and just see the world as it is, what is seen as a key aspect of growing up. A fantastical series having lessons relating to fantasy in general is quite meta, and really a description of meta may well be the best way to describe the entire series. It uses tropes as plot devices themselves, with characters even utilizing them, but often with very different perspectives then what is generally used.
And even beyond this, there was a tremendous amount of character development, not just in Quentin, but in the many other characters as well. Quentin, Alice, Julia, Elliot, Janet, Josh, Poppy, and Penny all come out of the series incredibly different than they were going in, which is expected considering this series shows more than a decade of their life, but even with that caveat, there was still tremendous growth. Fantastical worlds have a habit of doing that, though the directions that their growth went in was very much down to Earth, which is pretty unique for a fantasy novel honestly. There was also a very good deal of relationship drama between them, though to be frank I wasn’t very appreciative of it and it all seemed to be a bit hollow and lackluster, which may well have been intentional to show how fantasy doesn’t automatically make every relationship more romantic or even interesting, but at that point we’d have to be taking this meta thing way too far for my tastes and hence I’m not going to be thinking in that direction too deeply.
I also enjoyed Grossman’s style of writing very much. He didn’t get too gritty with details or descriptions, leaving most things to the imagination, except for the utterly fantastical which was described in such a way as to convey how ridiculous it was. This was definitely for the best, as it didn’t get bogged down too much and kept up a really fast pace. For example, it breezes through five years of schooling in the first two third approximately of the first novel.
Lots of different themes: Growing up. Fantasy not being quite fantastical, but still fantastical. Not always waiting for the next thing as where you’ll find happiness. Different paths to the same thing. Relationships being complicated as hell. People wanting different things. Too much of a good thing can be bad.
A series about growing up set to a background of a meta commentary on the genre of fantasy that does really well all things considered.