Quentin Coldwater’s a Whiner: The Magicians Trilogy Reviewed

Alas, I still don’t have a new illustration for you. Lately my life has been hectic, and not conducive to creative projects. Happily there is light at the end of this particular tunnel, so maybe next time.

But for now, another book review.

Another trilogy review, actually. This time, I’ve gobbled up Lev Grossman’s The Magicians Trilogy, and it is good. Very good.  But I didn’t think so at first.

The problem was Quentin Coldwater, whose shoulder we perch on throughout The Magicians and for much of The Magician King and The Magician’s Land. Quentin grows up longing for magic, and then finds it while applying for college. Like Harry Potter (whose books are referenced frequently, along with Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, and Discworld), Quentin is whisked out of his ordinary life to join Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. Except unlike Harry Potter, magic and friendship don’t solve all his problems.

Which I like. I like Grossman’s more grown-up, sometimes tongue-in-cheek approach that still manages to hold so much whimsy. I like the self-awareness of the characters. They come from our own world, read the same books we’ve probably read, and so know the rules of magical lands and adventures without having actually been on them before. Like how quests just work out if you go with it, or how to assume the role of a King, or a Queen, or a Magician for that matter.

I like the various settings. There aren’t too many fantasy novels whose lands I would actually want to visit — they’re usually too war-torn and scary. But Brakebills is totally a college I would have attended. I would be happy to explore the Narnia-esque kingdom of Fillory, or even the eerie, endless Neitherlands.

And I really like Grossman’s take on the practice of magic. It’s hard. It requires an unbelievable amount of esoteric knowledge and finger dexterity. It requires mind-meltingly difficult calculations regarding the Conditions — time of day and year, latitude, temperature, etc. — to determine just how a spell should be adjusted and cast. To keep up with all this, the Brakebills students are all young geniuses; academic over-achievers, bored, intoxicant-seeking, and generally dissatisfied with their mundane schools and lives.

The result is that the characters are all damaged and self-hating, and none more so than Quentin. That’s usually fun for me. I have my own issues, and so do many of my closest friends. But there’s no obvious reason for Quentin’s deep malaise. Parents still together, no history of abuse, no dead friends, no chronic illness. He’s just aimless, and being aimless, terribly unhappy.

I can empathize, but after awhile it gets old. I got really tired of Quentin after The Magicians, and didn’t plan to go back for more of him.

But after a few months I went back anyway.

Part of it was that — in hindsight — the magical settings and beings and quests were so damn creative, they overshadowed my memories of what a self-destructive whiner Quentin Coldwater was.  Good fantasy is hard to find, and even if I didn’t like Quentin this was the good, pure stuff.

And part of it was solidarity.  Admittedly, Grossman doesn’t need my solidarity; he’s a successful author with books out, and merchandise to match.  And I’m not.  (Yet.)

But I’ve got my own self-loathing magus, Thades Morgan, and I’ve had my own beta readers go every which way on their opinions of him.  Mostly they love him, but one reader detested his melancholy.  So I toned it down, only to have a more savvy beta reader tell me that she wasn’t always convinced by Thades — that I should make him more disgusted with himself again.

You just can’t please everyone, can you?

In any event, I gave Quentin Coldwater another chance, and I’m glad I did.  Quentin matures considerably in The Magician King and The Magician’s Land, and learns to like himself.  The spells get bigger and flashier, more of Fillory is revealed, and the adventures get more creative and intense.  And Grossman does something really smart — as the story gets bigger, he switches from sticking with Quentin to hopping around between his friends.  And they too progress from dysfunction to finding peace with themselves, no matter what transformations they go through.

The Magicians Trilogy is just fantastic, really.  And if you get frustrated with Quentin, as I did, don’t worry.  You’re in the hands of a master here.  Lev Grossman’s the real magician.


2 thoughts on “Quentin Coldwater’s a Whiner: The Magicians Trilogy Reviewed

  1. Okay, I started the show recently and I really really hate quinton and I still do, he irritates me.

    But with you advise, I’ll give the trilogy a shot. Thank you.


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