“The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea. . . . Hogwarts was never like this.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
This series – particularly the first book – is fantasy Marmite: people either love it or hate it. Some even go so far as to say the TV series is better! I can’t speak to that as I haven’t seen it.
The series is often toted as “Harry Potter for adults” – which does it no favours as it sets up a whole wealth of expectations.
Yes, there is a magical school to which ‘children’ from both magical and non-magical families are recruited. However, rather than the (mainly) wide-eyed 11-year old innocents arriving at Hogwarts for the first time; those entering Brakebills are slightly nihilistic, over-achieving 17-year old outsiders on the cusp of adulthood and desperately trying to be ‘cool’, or just trying to discover who they are.
There is consequently swearing, alcohol, smoking and *gasp* sex (mostly consensual) featured in the books. In addition, there is a lot less black and white and more grey – particularly when the main characters leave the school and try to make their way as adults in the big, wide world. This of course is another difference, after the first book, very little of the action takes place within the school.
Whilst the books directly mention Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings and other familiar works of fantasy, there is one glaring omission: Narnia. This is because the magical land the protagonists find themselves in (Fillory) is so obviously based on C.S Lewis’ magnificent work, it hurts.
Moreover, Grossman holds up a fairground mirror to Narnia – with the result that the reflection we get is oft times far more dark and twisted than our traditional view. I enjoyed this different take – but I suspect not everyone feels that way. I remember at age 16, a friend of mine being very unimpressed at the first screening of “Five Go Mad in Dorset” by the Comic Strip Presents (I found it hilarious). People don’t always appreciate cherished childhood icons being messed with. Others really like it. As I said at the beginning: Marmite.
I personally liked the writing style – but there is a fair amount of exposition early on as the author sets the scene for what is to come later – which again annoys some people. This series is not for everyone – and certainly not for someone looking for a directly comparable Harry Potter style book. I found it an absorbing and unique series where the complex choices one has to make as an adult were given an extra magical dimension, and where what was coming next was not always telegraphed.
Added 17th October 2016