So, I’m a little late to reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, considering the sequel is out now. But then, I didn’t even hear about it until last September when I sawa brief mention at The Volokh Conspiracy, and have only just had the chance to get to it.
Anyway, I liked it a lot. The pacing is quite good, the word choice is for the most part impeccable, and the story follows a familiar but finely individualized narrative. Some have described it as “Harry Potter goes to college,” but it’s definitely more than that. There are frequent parallels to Rowling’s work, as well as the fantasy worlds of Lewis, Tolkien and even Star Wars, but they work as acknowledgements of the pop culture world we live in, riffs off multiple themes that so many people take too much effort to avoid or blatantly copy. In particular, I like that Grossman seems to both revere and mock fantasy as a genre, paying homage without pulling punches, yet he manages to make neither the reverence or the mockery feel overdone or insincere. Plus, introspection followed immediately by juvenile humor is always a good time.
I was chagrined to see some people on Goodreads characterize the story as nihilistic. I replied to that particular criticism in my Goodreads review. Short version: it’s not.
I did want to address one items that particularly bothered me. Specifically, his geography of Upstate New York is horrendous. At one point in the book, Quentin and his friends retire to a cottage vaguely in Upstate New York. Where exactly? We don’t know, but we are given a couple clues. In preparation for their foray into the magical world of Fillory, they need to buy appropriate gear, so they drive to Buffalo. That’s no problem — until we get to the next paragraph and find out that their cottage has a view of the sun setting behind the Adirondacks.
For anyone who doesn’t know the geography of Upstate New York, this might seem perfectly natural. Buffalo is in Upstate New York; the Adirondacks are in Upstate New York. Except that the Adirondacks are on the completely opposite end of Upstate from Buffalo. To see the sun setting behind them, one would (obviously) have to be east of the Adirondacks. A travel to Buffalo from a spot sufficiently east of the Adirondack Mountains to see the sun setting behind them would involve a six-hour trip one way! Furthermore, there are at least three goodly sized cities — Albany, Syracuse and Rochester — and any number of smaller cities closer to the Adirondacks than Buffalo. Heck, depending on traffic, weather and where exactly the cabin was located, it might even be closer to drive to NYC.
Now, this is a relatively minor error, and forgivable one if it didn’t really matter to the plot where they had gone. But they drove (without mention of using magic!) to Buffalo basically to buy hunting and cold-weather gear: Parkas and knives, specifically. Not only was driving to Buffalo a complete waste of time and gas, but the items they got there were things they could have gotten at pretty much any back highway mom-and-pop store in Upstate NY.
So, chalk that up as my one complaint. Overall it doesn’t shed a significant pall over the story. For those who don’t care how far away Buffalo is from points east of the Adirondacks, feel free to breeze by that bit and not think anything the worse for it. It’s just a shame that Grossman, who apparently took care with so many other aspects of the story, couldn’t take 30 seconds to Google Map it.