This story beautifully captured two things for me: depression and dissatisfaction with the futility of life.
The main character, Quentin Coldwater, lives a lifestyle that he thinks will make him happy, but doesn’t. Drugs and sleeping around don’t bring him fulfillment, they only make him more miserable. One scene perfectly encapsulates this realization that his lifestyle is worsening his depression, and it is hurting those he loves.
The book also communicates just how HARD magic can be. I mean, every spell requires a set of hand symbols which are so complex, your hands ache after practicing them. Then, every spell must be modified according to the “circumstances”, ways that you must tweak your spells due to nearby factors. The nearest body of water, the political affiliation of the people nearby, the time of year, the location of the moon, whether your bladder is full (the last was a joke… almost), etc. There are literally books and books filled with tables and charts describing all of these.
Magic isn’t much explained, since you basically need a genius-level intellect to comprehend it at all (which is why the magical college only recruits people with such intellect as potential students). But Lev Grossman doesn’t use magic to solve crazy plot problems (and if he does, he quite efficiently explains THAT part of the magic). In fact, magic, or the ability to do almost whatever you want, causes problems in the protagonist’s sense of purpose. He can get almost whatever he wants, therefore he is depressed and feels like life has no point. The plot issues must be solved through different means.
People talk about hard-magic (rule-based) and soft-magic (mysterious). Other novelists use educating the reader about the rules as a way to solve plot problems, and I LOVE novels like that. But Lev Grossman doesn’t do this. As I said above, being able to do anything with magic, even though it’s really hard, does not solve the emotional and relationship issues of the main characters.
If you don’t mind f-bombs and a moderate amount of sexuality (he doesn’t go into pornographic detail, but these ARE promiscuous twenty-somethings), then I DEFINITELY recommend this book. It touches my own inner pains in a way that no other novel quite has. The part that suffers from anxiety and depression. And, most important of all, it gives HOPE for the future. Despite the truth of these sorrows, he gives you HOPE as a truth to top it all.
p.s. It’s also a TV show on Sci-fi. I’ve watched part of the first season. It’s pretty good! More rushed, and they also add more events and change things. It’s different from the book, just know that and perhaps you’ll enjoy it too. 🙂