I said to a guy, “Tell me, what is it about cocaine that makes it so wonderful?” And the guy said, “Well, it intensifies your personality.” And I said, “Yes, but what if you’re an asshole?” —Bill Cosby
Quentin Coldwater is a talented, bright kid with vast opportunities. He's just not happy about it. Setting out for an ivy-league college interview, he is immersed in magical intrigue and — perhaps more important to Quentin — a glimpse at a manuscript for a previously-unknown sequel to a magical fantasy series about a group of children that go off to the magical land of Fillory. On chasing down this blowing manuscript, he finds himself just in time to take the entrance exam for Brakebills, a magical university. A magical education later, Quentin Coldwater is a talented, bright kid with vast opportunities. He's just not happy about it.
So, what would you do with a magical education, and a virtually limitless slush fund for freshly-minted magicians? Party 'til you drop, apparently. In the midst of the debauchery, a classmate shows up with intriguing news: There really is a Fillory, and he's found a way to get there. So they go. Not all of them return. In the end, Quentin Coldwater is a talented, bright adult with vast opportunities. He's just not happy about it.
Make no mistake: Grossman can write. And, for the first third of the book, that fools you into thinking it's worth reading. The novelty of the approach and the sheer inventiveness throughout lets you excuse some excesses in the characters, lets you call the details "gritty" and refreshing.
Now, I allow a bit more leeway than some do as to what's acceptable to read. I enjoy seeing truth through the eyes of others, and I'm willing to put up with a few things to see that. Some people would be offended at the mere mention of magic. Some people would hurl the book away from themselves should any character take a drink, use foul language, or look at each other in lust. Sinners sin. That's what they do. No need to be surprised by it.
That said, the excesses start piling on heavier and heavier. Time is marked in bottles, and by the midpoint of the book, the characters are pretty much engaged in outright debauchery. I plowed on past these points, thinking "it can't get worse..." and pretty much being wrong, every time. By the end of the book, it's downright gory. I don't mind a little dirt in a good story, but really, must one wallow in it?
It's tempting, at least initially, to compare elements of this story to other greats in the genre. Brakebills = Hogwarts, Fillory = Narnia, and so on. Grossman evidently didn't want to continue any of those traditions for their own sake; fans of Narnia in particular are going to feel like he sullied the tale for no good reason. "Narnia without Aslan" isn't a new literary concept, but the likes of Phillip Pullman attack it directly; in The Magicians, it's more negligent homicide than murder one.
The most pervasive theme throughout the book, however, isn't in the book: it's the intense desire, instilled in the reader, to reach into the pages and slap Quentin & Co. upside the head. Part of the discomfort for me was in identifying with the main character, and realizing that I would have wanted to do the same thing in that situation. Every bad decision that could be made, generally is.
At the end of it all, there are quite a number of things one can take away from the book: Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Life without purpose is pretty depressing. No amount of talent makes up for being a jerk. Narnia without Aslan is no better than any other place. Escapist fantasy this isn't — quite the opposite. I'm not sorry I visited this particular world, but I'm not going to be making a return trip.