Book Brawl: Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone Vs. The Magicians

Welcome back to Book Brawl, in which we throw two books into the ring to watch them fight it out for the coveted title of literary champion. Today's pugilist publications are the first books in two different series about seemingly average boys being sent to magical schools: J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1997) and Lev Grossman's The Magicians (2009).

We're going to do things a little differently around Book Brawl this month, as it's come to my attention that this battle of the books is far too significant to rest in the hands of one fickle reader. I know LitReactor readers will make highly qualified, unbiased judges, so I am opening up the judging to the comment section! I'll announce the rounds, and I'll give my picks in the comments. You guys speak up in the comments and tell me who you think should win each round, and then I'll tally the votes and announce the winners. Be gentle on our competitors. Book Brawl is a harsh, harsh mistress and the fate of two gentle tomes rests in your capable hands. 

Round One: By Any Other Name

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone or Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, depending on where you live, are both titles with a lilting cadence that indicates a charming fairy tale and a bit of mystery. The titles give you just enough information to leave you curious about the rest. Rowling's superpower, after all, is clever, catchy naming of things and people. If only she could have shared that talent with poor, besieged Suzanne Collins. (Katniss Everdeen? Really?)

The Magicians is certainly a straightforward title. There are magicians in the book, to be sure. So it's honest.

Round Two: A Book By Its Cover

Harry Potter's first book features the boy wonder flying through the air on his Quidditch broom, arm outstretched for the golden snitch. A unicorn gallops through the background, a three-headed dog snarls menacingly, Hogwarts looms in the distance, there's a diamond pattern at the bottom, and the now-iconic font is large and eye-catching. There's a lot happening on this cover.

The Magicians' cover is a bit more subdued and elegant, as is fitting with the more adult themes in the novel. A gnarled tree is reflected in a mossy pool. More trees rest in the receding fog. The title and author's name are bold and simple. It's quite fetching.

Round Three: What A Lovely Language

Rowling wrote Harry Potter for children, and as Harry grows, so does the series, so later books are written in a more mature and refined manner. The first novel, however, is written in a sweet, simple style that can be read in one easy sitting. 

It was the unicorn all right, and it was dead. Harry had never seen anything so beautiful and sad. Its long, slender legs were stuck out at odd angles where it had fallen and its mane was spread pearly-white on the dark leaves.

Harry had taken one step toward it when a slithering sound made him freeze where he stood. A bush on the edge of the clearing quivered. . . . Then, out of the shadows, a hooded figure came crawling across the ground like some stalking beast. 

Lev Grossman's language is quite striking. It isn't flowery or superlative, yet it's poetic. It's occasionally bleak and always memorable.

In the window a single red leaf flapped crazily in the wind on the end of a bare branch, having hung on longer into the fall than any of its fellows. Quentin watched it. The wind flailed the leaf back and forth on the end of its stem. It seemed like the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. All he wanted was to go on looking at it for one minute longer. He would give anything for that, just one more minute with his little red leaf.

Round Four: The Magician

Harry Potter is the Boy Who Lived, a brave 11-year-old left orphaned by his parents and raised by bitter and uptight in-laws. He is destined to defeat Voldemort, the most terrifying dark wizard who ever lived, but mostly he just wants to play sports, make friends and do well in school. He's pretty sassy but unquestionably loyal. 

Quentin Coldwater is a brilliant high school senior who's a bit of an outsider due to his all-consuming obsession with the Fillory books, a children's series about a magical land similar to Narnia. He's snarky and skeptical and deeply intelligent, and when he discovers he's been recruited to a magical school, he rolls with the punches and adapts very quickly. He's as much of an over-achiever at magic as he ever was at differential equations.

Round Five: The School

Hogwarts is the school for wizards in Harry's world, a seven-year residential establishment that recruits students at the age of 11. Rowling goes into immense detail regarding the curriculum - which grows ever more challenging and specific over the years - as well as the standardized tests: NEWTS for the younger students and OWLS for the older kids. The character arcs of the professors are as significants as the students', with Professors McGonagall, Snape and others featuring crucially in the series. And Hogwarts has the single greatest headmaster of all time, the kindly and penetrating Dumbledore.

Quentin attends Brakebills in The Magicians, which is more like a residential college, recruiting 17- and 18-year-olds for four years before they are loosed out into the world. Two-thirds of the way into the first novel, Quentin has graduated Brakebills, so the specifics of the school, its curriculum and professors aren't as finely embellished as in Harry Potter

Round Six: The Magic

As with the curriculum of Hogwarts, Rowling is wonderfully specific in describing the magic of Harry's world. She describes in minute - yet never tedious - detail how the students learn their spells: the words they must use, the motions they must make with their wands, how they must concentrate and why some students excel at certain kinds of magic while others do not. The spells all have names with cleverly appropriate Latin roots. Rowling clearly spent a tremendous amount of time crafting the magic behind the novels, and it's very rewarding for the reader. 

And as with the curriculum, Grossman doesn't go into the details behind the magic. It's all a little frustrating, the haziness of the spells and how Quentin and his friends learn them. However, if a reader finds the comprehensive nature of Rowling's magic exhausting, The Magicians certainly never dwells on the meticulous.

Round Seven: The Villain

Voldemort. He Who Must Not Be Named. You-Know-Who. The Dark Lord. He's the most powerful and evil wizard of all time, and he is one bad motherfucker. 

Martin is the villain of The Magicians, one of the Chatwin children of the Fillory books who vanished and then grew into a power-hungry dark wizard. Martin doesn't feature very significantly in The Magicians, but his two scenes are frightening and memorable. 

So there you have it - seven rounds of magical combat, waiting with bated breath for your wise, objective verdict. Speak up in the comments, readers! I'll go first and tell you who I think should win each round, and then it's your turn! Also speak up about future books you'd love to see brawl. Tune back in next week to see who won!

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Typewriter Demigod's picture
Typewriter Demigod from London is reading "White Noise" by DeLilo, "Moby-Dick" by Hermann Mellivile and "Uylsses" by Joyce April 18, 2012 - 11:58am

I read and loved them both, however to be honest, I prefered The Magicians over all bar two of the Harry Potter series. Numbers 4 and 7 were the best imho. The Magicians felt like Harry Potter but with enough balls to say "fuck", but without the endearing childishness. 

Typewriter Demigod's picture
Typewriter Demigod from London is reading "White Noise" by DeLilo, "Moby-Dick" by Hermann Mellivile and "Uylsses" by Joyce April 18, 2012 - 12:02pm

I would like to see a brawl between Annabel by Kathleen Winter and Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenedes (both of which have a transgendered protagonist)

Meredith's picture
Meredith from Houston, Texas is reading His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman April 18, 2012 - 12:30pm

My pics! 

Round One: Harry Potter

Round Two: The Magicians

Round Three: The Magicians

Round Four: Harry Potter

Round Five: Harry Potter

Round Six: Harry Potter

Round Seven: Harry Potter



Meredith's picture
Meredith from Houston, Texas is reading His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman April 18, 2012 - 12:31pm

Also, @typewriter: Great suggestion, thanks!

Ben Villeneuve's picture
Ben Villeneuve from Maine is reading Gardens of the Moon April 18, 2012 - 12:39pm

My vote goes toward The Magicicians overall. Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone is a lovely book, but in no category does it outweigh the Grossman. Not even in childlike wonderment--there are moments in The Magicians where I felt honestly amazed at what was going on. Harry Potter was wish fulfillment for me when I was younger, and there's nothing wrong with that, and it does what it does pretty well, but The Magicians has stuck with me in ways Potter never did.

I have a couple quibbles about the rundowns here. One, your assessment of the characters ignores that Quentin's an absolute asshole throughout most of the book. I understand that's turned a lot of readers off, but it made me enjoy the book even more than I would have if Quentin had been a nice guy.

Two, you don't give enough credit to the magic in The Magicians. It's not laid out in a way that could be laid out in a nice neat table like the spells of Rowling's books, but it is deeply systematic, and if there's anything the reader can tell about it, it's that it is very challenging. That's one of the things I love most about The Magicians: Magic feels unsubdued. It feels like a bucking horse that a small section of humanity has managed to mount through methods that it at times seems they have only barely begun to understand. There's nothing neat about it, but I've read The Magicians and part of the sequel and I could tell you much more about the magic system than I ever could about Harry Potter's tidy list of orderly (and, to me, boring) spells.

And on that note, the curriculum is a similar situation for me. Lev Grossman doesn't tell the reader as much about what goes on at Brakebills, but what he does tell is always a hundred times more interesting than anything that happens at Hogwarts. Would you rather read about yet another Quidditch match, or about a school tradition where one-use protective demons are bound to each and every graduating student? I definitely know where I stand.

1979semifinalist's picture
1979semifinalist from California but living in NYC is reading Joe Hill's NOS4A2 April 19, 2012 - 10:37am

I really want to go with The Magicians, because when I heard it was "Harry Potter for adults" I thought NOW THAT IS FOR ME!

But it honestly really let me down when it came to how creative it was and how much it pushed on things. There were a lot of good ideas but many of them didn't seem to go anywhere and I remember at the end feeling very "that's it?!?".

Pound for pound Harry Potter is far more creative, has better more intricate world building, and just feels like it has soul in a way that The Magicians didn't for me. The Magicians is a good book, and perhaps my expectations were too high going in, but it just didn't deliver what I had hoped for.

I definitely give The Magicians a win in the cover category though, and perhaps in the language category. Overall it's Potter though.

Heather Cuthbertson's picture
Heather Cuthbertson April 19, 2012 - 11:33am

Looking at the round-for-round breakdown, it seems like The Magicians is the clear winner. But, taking the book as a whole, I just find JK Rowling to be a more compelling storyteller. My vote is for Harry.

Meredith's picture
Meredith from Houston, Texas is reading His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman April 20, 2012 - 7:43am

It's pretty neck and neck right now!

Meredith's picture
Meredith from Houston, Texas is reading His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman April 25, 2012 - 9:02am

And the Book Brawl winner is...HARRY POTTER! By one vote only.