This recommendation came with a "I know you don't like school novels, but this is really good!"
Fine. So it's about teenagers going to a magical school, which as a concept that makes my skin crawl.
Here's the tl;dr instead of a rant: school novels--whether set in a magical world or not--reflect a system that just rubs me the wrong way. Kids are made to compete against each other to learn camaraderie--and bullying of kids they compete against!--and often make other, lowlier members of society/school their servants, or treat them as such. It's just one of those things I can't get over.
But I do enjoy having my preconceptions challenged! This novel was great.
Often, magic is only questionable if it's executed by an evil character for evil deeds. Instead of being just a cute skill, in The Magicians magic is a weapon that should never be used without understanding its consequences fully. But mistakes are made, because that's human nature.
The main character, Quentin, is a teenager who likes drinking and drifting, and he's gotten really good at sleight-of-hand acts, like pulling a penny behind a spectator's ear. He has a dirty secret: ever since he was young he's been obsessed with a fantasy novel series about regular kids finding a magical land called Fillory (very much like Narnia), but now he's too cool to admit it. There's just something weird about the way the Fillory series ended...
Quentin is suddenly pulled into an entrance exam to a magical school. He thinks he's pretty hot shit, showing the board his card and nickel tricks, but soon he realizes that illusions aren't what make a good magician. He watches his classmates break things and then rebuild them without touching. He's not entirely sure how he gets in, but us readers can piece it from the content of the exams.
Without spoiling anything, I really enjoyed this premise where a regular kid who is looking for his place in life gets obsessed with becoming good at this one thing--magic--and not letting go, even when his classmates are doing much better than he is. He simply dedicates more time to learning and practicing. Like with anything, talent just means you have had a chance to practice something over and over again, and I think that message is much better for teenagers than "you're just born with an innate ability to do awesome stuff. If you can't do it, then you probably should dedicate your time to something else you're already good at."
Further, Quentin is such a well-written character. I was cheering him on when he was struggling to do the best he could, but I was also infuriated with him when he was behaving like a complete asshat. He's a self-centered idiot. which makes him all the more human. He's just a regular guy who has issues and tries to make sense of himself and other people in bizarre surroundings.
Another cool aspect was how magic was handled in the novel. It wasn't about memorizing incantations and making things go poof, presto!--learning and practice both were physical activities, with lots of sweating and trembling involved. By the time Quentin learns how to transform into an animal, I could almost feel the physical sensation of the transformation through Grossman's captivating descriptions.
Then there were the bits that were absolutely terrifying. I almost gave up on the book early on, thinking it was a bit too teenage-y and pat with its pop culture and literary references, but then there was this scene... Oh man. I felt genuinely frightened, as if I were suddenly reading a horror novel. My palms were sweating, I swear. Grossman creates unsettling moments from then on, each making me question whether learning magic and living in a magic fantasy land is such a cool idea after all.