Quentin Coldwater is used to being smarter than everyone he knows. Like many other clever, precocious teenagers, he's convinced that there must be something more out there than the dreary existence he faces every day. On his way to a college interview, he discovers that there is, in fact. He ends up at a secret and very exclusive college in upstate New York, where he discovers that magic is not only real, but he can perform it. Magic is not necessarily easy and fun, however, it takes years of gruelling training, study and practise.
Quentin finds himself surrounded by students just as brilliant as he, and for the first time, has to face up to the fact that there may be others out there smarter and better at things than he is. By working very hard, he gets through his four years at Brakebills Academy (with a semester abroad in Antarctica). Yet even learning magic, making like minded friends and getting a girlfriend doesn't bring Quentin happiness. He stays insecure, discontent, self-centred and sceptical, always searching for more.
After graduation, he and several of his friends go on to live a life of indulgence, decadence and genial boredom in New York, until a fellow Brakebills graduate shows up on their doorstep to announce that Fillory, the Narnia-esque fantasy world they all read about as kids (and which Quentin has always dreamt of) is real, and he has a way to take them there? Will going for a quest in Fillory finally bring Quentin the fulfilment and adventure he's always sought?
The Magicians seems to be most often described as "Harry Potter for adults". It's not a bad description. In many ways, Grossman's description of what would happen if a load of highly clever, discontented teenagers discovered that they were indeed not only smarter than everyone else, but had magical powers, is very plausible. They'd be unbearable. As most of the characters in this book are. Quentin is a self-centred, miserable, depressive and self indulgent little twit, who despite being taught to do magic, accepted to a highly exclusive school, getting an awesome girlfriend and generally being damn lucky, never, even for a second, counts his lucky stars and snaps out of it. Most of his friends are just as spoiled, self indulgent and douchy as him.
I really liked Grossman's world building, and kept reading mainly to find out what would happen next. Both the spin on the Hogwarts-like Brakebills Academy, and the clearly riffing on Narnia-esque Fillory were very well done, and I especially liked the very real and scary dangers facing the young magicians once they start exploring Fillory. Unfortunately, Quentin really did annoy the heck out of me, and as most of his other companions were just as loathsome, it was hard to really like the book. I have, however, from the many reviews I've read, seen that The Magician King focuses a lot more on Quentin's friend Julia, who he ditches when he gets accepted to Brakebills, and will therefore give it a chance.