Review | The Magicians, Lev Grossman


In Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater, a nerdy and melancholy eighteen year old, is recruited to join a magic university in upstate New York called Brakebills. Quentin is obsessed with a children’s fantasy series about a magical land called Fillory, and real life just cannot compare, particularly when he sees himself as both sidekick and jilted suitor in his trio of friends. When invited to study at Brakebills, he hopes he has finally found his meaning in life, his place of belonging, and the thing that will finally bring him happiness.

Grossman riffs off the Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia traditions, and presents a rather more sardonic view of magic. As an older student, Eliot, tells Quentin, most people can’t do magic because “it’s very hard, and they’re not obsessive and miserable enough to do all the work you have to do to do it right.” Indeed, unlike Hogwarts which felt wondrous and, well, magical, Brakebills makes magic feel like a particularly rigorous college major, like pre-law or pre-med. During one term for example, students had to study in isolation all the different ways circumstances can change the makeup of a single spell. As Quentin observed, he knew more about that particular spell than he’d ever wanted to know, including how to cast it if he were a woman.

The book continues to follow the characters after graduation, when they struggle to find their place in a world where most people are unaware that magic exists. One of them discovers a portal to Fillory, and, having not quite found the happiness he sought in Brakebills, Quentin turns his attention into possibly finding happiness in the fantasy land of his youth. However, just like Brakebills isn’t quite as wondrous as Hogwarts, nor is Fillory anywhere near as magical as Narnia. The residents in Fillory appear to be in need of something, and while Quentin and his friends decide to go on a quest to become kings and queens of Fillory, the decision resulted more from an understanding of fantasy tropes and classic quest stories than from any real understanding of how the quest’s success will solve Fillory’s troubles.

I liked the story. I hesitate to call it more realistic than traditional magical stories because I like to think real-life magic would still be more exciting and wondrous than Grossman presents. As well, Grossman pulls short of delving deep into realism — while his characters drink a lot and face ennui upon graduation, they also lead charmed lives, with a magical network of corporations guaranteeing magical graduates a comfortable lifetime income for shell corporate jobs. I also hesitate to call it more adult than traditional magical stories, because while there is sex and drugs and certainly less wide-eyed innocence, there is also a naivete about Quentin and his friends’ approach to life, a sort of languorous privileged view that still makes me want to tell some of them to grow up. Still, in a way, both descriptors are accurate. Grossman does raise some interesting complications that could occur if magic and magical lands did exist. I can imagine mastery at magic requiring a lot more tedious memorization than fun tricks, and I can also imagine a magical fantasy land not quite living up to childhood expectations.

Among the characters, I absolutely loved Quentin’s classmates Eliot, a fashionable gourmet, and Alice, a brilliant, talented magician. In contrast, Quentin is not at all a likeable character, at least for me. It’s hard to root for someone who is so consumed by his own ennui and lack of self-worth that he is unable to see that other people around him have problems of their own and that he externalizes blame for his mistakes onto “the sick, empty world they were all in together.” (p. 263)

His attitude towards their quest in Fillory annoys me as well. When Alice points out that people could get hurt, he responds:

“If I die doing this, at least I’ll have done something. Maybe you’ll do something one of these days instead of being such a pathetic little mouse all the time.” (p. 332)

The problem is that they don’t really have a goal or stated need for that quest in the first place. Quentin is just bored with life and decides to find meaning by visiting Fillory, and then literally for lack of anything else to do, decides to go on a quest to become king.

Possibly one of the reasons I love Alice so much is that she calls Quentin out on his behaviour:

“If you will, for just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or your going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.”

“You can’t just decide to be happy.”

“No, you can’t. But you can sure as hell decide to be miserable. Is that what you want? Do you want to be the asshole who went to Fillory and was miserable there? Even in Fillory? Because that’s who you are right now.” (p. 333)

The end of the book promises further adventure in the sequel, this time involving Quentin’s childhood friend Julia, who was not accepted into Brakebills and therefore taught herself magic. From what I hear, she is a much more interesting character than Quentin, and the TV show version somewhat conflates both books so that, on the screen, we get her story alongside Quentin’s.

The Magicians TV Adaptation on Showcase

Having read the book, I’m much more excited to see how it translates on the screen, and to see the actors who will bring the characters to life. I also can’t wait to find out more about Julia’s story, as the glimpse I’ve seen of her in the book seems intriguing.

The Magicians premiered last January 25, and airs on Showcase Mondays at 9. Catch up on previous episodes at and check out a brand-new episode tonight on TV and tomorrow online.


Thanks to for a copy of this book (and awesome card deck!) in exchange for an honest review.

TV Review | The Red Tent (Showcase)


The Red Tent. Image courtesy of Showcase.

THE RED TENT (2x120min)
Canadian Premiere
TWO NIGHT MINISERIES EVENT: Sunday, December 7 at 10pm ET/PT and Monday, December 8 at 10pm ET/PT Based on the best-selling novel by Anita DiamantThe Red Tent is the sweeping tale of Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, who was only referred to in small glimpses in the Old Testament. The miniseries begins with Dinah’s happy childhood spent inside the red tent where only the women of her tribe are allowed to gather and share the traditions and turmoil of ancient womanhood. Told through Dinah’s eyes, the film recounts the story of her mothers, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah, the four wives of Jacob. The saga continues as Dinah matures and experiences an intense love that subsequently leads to a devastating loss, changing the fate of her and her family’s lives forever. Starring Minnie Driver, Morena Baccarin, Rebecca Ferguson, Iain Glen, Will Tudor, and Debra Winger.


I grew up Catholic, and so am vaguely familiar with the story of Jacob and his children, the twelve sons who later became the twelve tribes of Israel and the single daughter Dinah. A teacher in sixth grade gave a pop quiz where we had to list all of his children with proper spelling and in the correct birth order — this made such an impression on me that even now, I can still rattle off at least nine out of the thirteen names.

Traveling to their new  home. Will Tudor as Joseph, Rebecca Ferguson as Dinah and Minnie Driver as Leah. Image courtesy of Showcase.

Traveling to their new home. Will Tudor as Joseph, Rebecca Ferguson as Dinah and Minnie Driver as Leah. Image courtesy of Showcase.

However, I never really knew anything about Dinah beyond a name on the list. It turns out she had a pretty brief, violent mention in the Bible, and typical for Biblical stories, her passage was very much focused on the actions of her brothers and on the significance of her experience to the men around her. That’s why I absolutely loved The Red Tent. A feminist re-focusing of the   narrative, Diamant’s tale portrays Dinah as a woman who was raised and moulded by women. Diamant’s Dinah forges her own future and faces the tragic twists in her fate as an individual rather than merely a figure to prompt her father and brothers into action. I haven’t read Diamant’s book, but if the TV miniseries is any indication, the novel is definitely going on my To Read list.

Rebecca Ferguson as Dinah. Image courtesy of Showcase

Rebecca Ferguson as Dinah. Image courtesy of Showcase

Female empowerment is a theme that runs throughout the production. The tent in the title refers to the place where women in Dinah’s tribe stay when they have their period. The original purpose likely had to do with keeping “impurity” away from the men of the tribe, but in Diamant’s story, the red tent is a space of empowerment, where women share stories, celebrate their potential to create life, and secretly worship a goddess whose figure has been handed down from mother to daughter. One of the characters scoffs at how the men in the tribe pity them and their pain, when in fact menstruation is a source of power and cause for celebration.The portrayal of the red tent and the relationships among the women in Dinah’s tribe remind me very much of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where sisterhood is a potent, powerful force even within a patriarchal society.

Rebecca Ferguson as Dinah and Iain Glen as Jacob. Shot on location in Morocco, May 2014. Image courtesy of Showcase.

Rebecca Ferguson as Dinah and Iain Glen as Jacob. Shot on location in Morocco, May 2014. Image courtesy of Showcase.

Even as an adult, when tragedy takes Dinah away from her family, Dinah’s story is very much intertwined with the women around her. She is very much devoted to her son and men in her life, but the agency remains hers and the strong influences are from the women around her. Her mothers’ teachings remain strong even in into her adulthood, and her mother-in-law and a female friend help shape her future. At times, the women empowerment theme feels a bit heavy-handed, but to be honest, after having her story virtually subsumed by the male-centric Biblical narrative, I say it’s about time. The Red Tent features an impressive ensemble of actors. Rebecca Ferguson (The White Queen) is a powerful Dinah. In one scene, she accuses her father of privileging her brothers over her, because “I’m only a daughter. Only property.” Her bitterness is palpable, her voice hoarse with uncontrolled fury.

Minnie Driver as Leah. Photo courtesy of Showcase

Minnie Driver as Leah. Image courtesy of Showcase

Dinah’s biological mother Leah is played by Minnie Driver, whom I loved in Good Will Hunting, and who brings an earth mother type wisdom to the role. Driver’s cast bio begins “Audiences may not know where Driver’s next character calls home, but they can be sure that no matter where it is, British-born Driver will make her authentic.” I agree. And finally, I have to fangirl over Iain Glen as Dinah’s father Jacob. Glen’s filmography is long and illustrious, but I know and love him best as Jorah Mormont on Game of Thrones. After being so totally rejected by Daenerys, it’s nice to see him have four women in love with him in Red Tent. Seriously though, I love his work in Game of Thrones, and he makes an appealing Jacob — torn between his need to make his legacy strong and his desire to do what’s right for his daughter.

Iain Glen as Jacob. Image courtesy of Showcase

Iain Glen as Jacob. Image courtesy of Showcase

The Red Tent is a powerful story, a much-needed woman’s voice making her story heard through the centuries of patriarchal history. Originally a novel by Anita Diamant, it premieres tonight at 10 ET/PT as a two-part TV miniseries on Showcase. + Thank you to Showcase for a screener of this show in exchange for an honest review.