Reading guide for The Magicians by Lev Grossman

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The Magicians

A Novel

by Lev Grossman

The Magicians
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2009, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2010, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Judy Krueger

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Introduction

Brilliant, restless, and possessed of a GPA "higher than most people even realize it is possible for a GPA to be" (p. 5), Quentin Coldwater is on the fast track to an Ivy League college and a lifetime of enviable if predictable successes—or so he thinks. The seventeen-year-old high school senior also has an obsession with magic and a series of children’s books set in a fantasy land called Fillory that will soon transport him into a hidden world that at once vindicates and challenges his wildest dreams.

It’s a cold, windy afternoon in November when Quentin is en route to his Princeton admissions interview in the company of his best friends, James and Julia. As usual, he is unhappily nursing the resentment and lust he respectively harbors for them. But his brooding is interrupted when they arrive at the alumnus’s well-appointed home and discover his would-be interviewer dead. Within moments, Quentin is forced to realize that nothing is what it seems, and that reality itself is suspect.

A disarmingly sexy paramedic, a plain manila envelope, and a whipping wind lead Quentin from a chilly Brooklyn twilight to the warmth of a summer day in the country. Has he been whisked away to Fillory? No. But Quentin has entered a secret world so exclusive that even though geographically located in upstate New York, it is invisible to the uninitiated. After a rigorous, if somewhat peculiar, afternoon of tests and interviews, Quentin is offered admission to Brakebills, the only college of magic in North America.

At first, Brakebills’ hyper-exclusive education offers Quentin much of what he longed for: the camaraderie of like-minded misfits, challenging academic pursuits, and the confirmation that magic is very, very real. Along with his new friends—foppish and acerbic Eliot, competitive and thin-skinned Penny, and the preternaturally gifted Alice—Quentin studies the art of sorcery. But with power comes risks, and a practical joke gone awry invites "the beast," a malicious entity from another world, into all their lives.

However, like students at more pedestrian institutions, Quentin finds that both the joys and fears he’s discovered at Brakebills have palled and he is again restless and dissatisfied. After graduation, Quentin joins a group of similarly jaded fellows in Manhattan, where he embraces a nihilistic bacchanalian lifestyle that threatens to destroy the one relationship he cherishes most.

Just as Quentin commits his worst act of betrayal, Penny appears with astonishing news: he’s been to Fillory and can take them all. Galvanized by Penny’s discovery, the coterie of young magicians mobilizes for adventure in the land of talking animals, nature spirits, and old gods. But while the landscape is just as fantastic as his worn paperbacks have described, the journey is more perilous and the hand that governs Fillory more malevolent than Quentin could ever have imagined.

Exploring universal issues of adolescent angst and alienation through a prism of magic, The Magicians is a brilliantly imagined fantasy adventure that is as mesmerizing as it is intelligent. Using the beloved novels of C. S. Lewis, T. H. White, and J. K. Rowling as a springboard, bestselling author Lev Grossman unspools a riveting coming-of-age tale in which magic is as fallible and mercurial as the humans that wield it.


Discussion Questions
  1. In many ways The Magicians depicts and amplifies the quintessential adolescent experience: depression, ennui, emotional carelessness. Would magic be a gift or a curse for the typical teenager?

  2. Would Quentin ultimately have been happier if he had chosen not to attend Brakebills?

  3. Which character least typifies your vision of what a true magician would be? Explain.

  4. What does Quentin’s encounter with Julia in the cemetery say about him?

  5. During their time at Brakebills South, the aspiring magicians take the shape of a number of different animals. If it were a part of every human’s general education to spend some time as a particular animal, what animal should that be and why?

  6. After the Brakebillians discover that Martin Chatwin is the beast, Alice tells Quentin, "you actually still believe in magic. You do realize, right, that nobody else does?" (p. 179). How does his faith differentiate him from his friends?

  7. What do you make of Emily Greenstreet’s condemnation of magic, asserting "nobody can be touched by that much power without being corrupted?" (p. 399).

  8. Jane Chatwin specifically chose Quentin for the task of vanquishing the beast, yet he isn’t the one who winds up killing him. Why?

  9. Quentin says, "The problem with growing up is that once you’re grown up, people who aren’t grown up aren’t fun anymore." (p. 197). Has Quentin grown up at the end of the novel or is he, like Martin and Jane, frozen in a chronological netherland?

  10. Quentin seems, at times, to be a more potent magician than most of the Brakebills crew, skipping ahead a year in his studies and successfully making the journey to the South Pole. But his cacodemon is puny and he himself absolutely crumples once in Fillory. How powerful is he, really?

  11. Janet is neither "the most assiduous student . . . nor the most naturally gifted" (p. 121). She’s also a troublemaker and a bit of a coward but it is Janet—and not Alice—who will return to be a queen in Fillory. What does her survival say?

  12. Have you reread any of your favorite childhood novels as an adult? How did your understanding of the book change?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Plume. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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