Lev Grossman - The Magicians
2009, 402 pages
When I was in high school, I loved the Harry Potter books. I thought they were wonderfully imaginative and the world that J.K. Rowling built, especially Hogwart’s, seemed so well fleshed out and beautiful. As the books went on and I got older though, one thing started really bothering me. Harry Potter isn’t a good wizard. Neither is Ron. How is it that a trio containing two mediocre child magicians can take down the most powerful of the world’s adults? And please don’t say something like “Love” or “Bravery”, that’s overly simplistic. The more I read of the world that Rowling wrote, the more cartoony and caricaturish it seemed. The teachers could all be pulled from after school specials. The ancillary student characters, with a few notable exceptions, were all fairly one-note, and the ending of book seven seemed all wrong to me. And don’t even get me started on the epilogue. Ugh. I know that the book follows the basic hero’s journey and all that blah blah blah, but… the books haven’t stuck with me. I saw a couple of the movies, and have no interest to see any of the others.
Seeing as my last experience reading a fantasy book about life at a school for magic left me feeling unsatisfied, it was with some trepidation that I dove into Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. To me, it was a breath of fresh air. There were some tried and true fantasy novel tropes, but this magical world was firmly planted in a world more nuanced than what I’ve read before.
Our main character is an unsympathetic guy named Quentin. At eighteen years old, he gets sucked into Brakebills, America’s magical boarding school. By making the students older, the author is able to explore more adult themes earlier in the story. The years fly by, and Quentin and his friends don’t have to face down a terrible evil at the end of the year while at the same time studying for finals.
In The Magicians, magic is hard. It’s for the brainiacs, the select few who can obsessively practice an art form to the point of perfection. It’s for those few geniuses who have the ability to wield their austistic hyper-focus on making their fingers wiggle in exactly the correct pattern time after time. You don’t just pick up a wand and flick it around, and have awesome things happen. The main character in this book isn’t a hero, nor is he an anti-hero. It often seems like he is just going through the motions, and his life is being propelled by unseen forces. He’s a bit of a sad sack. Obsessed by a Narnia-esque children’s book, the world into which he is flung just doesn’t seem quite right for him. His circle of friends doesn’t seem to be friends only because they were flung together by random circumstance.
I appreciated that this book takes place over more than a decade. It gives a lot more opportunity for character growth, for people to fall in and out of love, for jobs to because dull and pointless. Quentin’s circle of friends all graduate from Brakebills, are flung into the real world, and flounder. One of them stumbles upon a magical artifact that allows them to travel to alternate universes, and they go to a Narnia-esque world with no real plans for what to do.
The Narnia adventure and final showdown didn’t grab hold of me quite as much as the rest of the book. It felt like the tone did a one hundred and eighty degree turn from where it was originally. It didn’t feel tacked on, but the adventure-story aspect of the time in Narnia didn’t sit as well for me. It wasn’t as fascinating as watching this sad sack of a character fight to find meaning in a world that doesn’t fit him quite right.
The Harry Potter books are excellent, but they aren’t really meant for adults. The Magicians is written for adults who loved the Narnia books and Harry Potter books, but who have been slapped around a bit by the real world. I’m looking forward to getting hold of a copy of the follow-up, but I’m concerned that it all might take place in Narnia.