Imagine that instead of C.S. Lewis and Narnia a man named Christopher Plover wrote about a land called Fillory and the Chatwin family. The Chatwin children make a few visits to Fillory, have grand adventures, and their stories make for a successful book series. Unlike Narnia, Fillory doesn't have any similarities to Christian dogma and unlike the stories of the Pevensie children, not all the Chatwins return home to the real world.
Now, imagine magic is real. It's not the wand-waving, fantastical kind of magic but a physics-based, ancient language-focused science that's hard to learn and tougher still to master. You're recruited and thoroughly tested before being admitted to magic college where your training takes place and you're then dumped out into the real world to figure out how to live with magic in a mundane environment. This world of magic is dark and the people who possess it are broken. Quentin is just a lost soul, totally unhappy. Magic killed Alice's brother, yet she still learns the craft. Eliot drinks way too much, and Janet uses her sexuality and amoral behavior to stay noticed.
The violent and gritty tale of our magicians moving through college, struggling in the real world, and finally facing a great evil takes the shine off magic. Magic inflicts so much physical and mental pain on our characters that they would have been better off never knowing it existed - not exactly the fantastical message usually brought across with magic in literature.
This intense take on the magical genre of story-telling had me caught up in the story at every turn. Grossman tells a fantastical tale without the fantasy making the story harsh and intense and surprising. Evil is pure and fierce and emotions (good and bad) are vibrant and deep - this world actually feels real to me. I don't think I've read a book this quickly since Olivia was born. I just had to know what came next.
If you like your magic more along the lines of Harry Potter, than this book isn't for you. Even the battle at the end of HP is nothing compared to the carnage and darkness revealed in The Magicians, but I highly recommend this book for anyone wanting a different literary take on magic and how being a magical person can damage you.