It’s hard to explain how a book that steals so much from existing children’s fantasy series can feel so original. And yet it does. The Magicians by Lev Grossman is unlike most of the fantasy you’re probably reading. It’s a book within a book, homage to great children’s fantasy worlds like Narnia and Harry Potter. It will make you remember all the things you loved about fantasy books as a child.
Lev Grossman, through the character of Quentin Coldwater, says something maybe most of us think but won’t admit to: we want there to be magic in our lives. Life without it is like Kansas compared to Oz: gray and dull. We know we’ll have to go home to our regular lives at the end of each book, like Harry Potter to the Dursleys or Dorothy to her farm; yet we really want to be sucked in and taken away. It’s not that we don’t love our families — but deep down don’t you think Dorothy was wrong to leave Oz?
I love the way Grossman says all this.
The Magicians is the story of Quentin Coldwater, who grows up enraptured with a series very like Narnia about a magical land called Fillory. Quentin can tell you every detail about every book, including all the unfinished storylines left when the author died. Quentin lives his life with the quiet longing to experience magic like the characters in the Fillory books do. In his senior year of high school, his dream comes true when he’s magically summoned to take an entrance exam to attend the mysterious Brakebills College of Magic.
Grossman is a huge Narnia fan, and this book steals liberally (maybe excessively) from the Narnia world. I was never a big Narnia fan, but I found it easy enough to substitute my own favorites (Oz, or the books of Edward Eager or E. Nesbit). And I can appreciate the concepts of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, even if it isn’t a favorite – the child who sticks his head into a wardrobe and comes out in a wintry forest, the idea of children going to a fantasy world, saving it, and then coming home again. The idea that time might operate differently in an alternate universe, or that magic might not be everything you expect it to be. C.S. Lewis wasn’t the only fantasy writer to play with these concepts. So this book might be Grossman’s homage to Lewis but for me it says something about the genre as a whole.
The Magicians has been billed as the grittier version of Harry Potter, but I don’t completely agree. It’s certainly more adult, but that’s to be expected since the characters are picking up at the age Harry Potter leaves off. It’s really the “college version” of Harry Potter – there’s sex, drugs and alcohol.
It’s grittier in that the characters are more nuanced and less likeable. Gone are the simply good and bad characters of Harry Potter – Quentin and his friends are just mixed-up students trying to get by. But at the same time, their lives are so much easier than in Harry Potter. Magic in this book isn’t about combating a great evil, it’s about learning some tricks and graduating and trying to put those tricks to work in the real world. Harry Potter sees a friend murdered in Book 4, but these students don’t face any real monsters until very late in the book, so you tell me which is darker.
Clearly that’s deliberate – in typical fantasy there’s a “we have to save the world” element; here, the question is more like “what if you could do magic but there wasn’t anything important you needed to do with it?”
There’s a few too many ripoffs of Harry Potter to suit me, like the college’s made-up sport. In some ways this book reminded me of another favorite, The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The characters attend a highly elite school and are extremely talented but pretty messed up. They have too much time on their hands and no idea what to do with their lives. They’re cut off from the real world and have to create one of their own. Although I’m not saying it’s near as good as The Secret History.
A lot of people on Amazon didn’t like this book because they didn’t like Quentin. Fair enough. If you have a sunnier disposition than I do (which is likely) you may have the same problem. Since I tend towards the dark and gloomy side, Quentin suited me pretty well. He’s a glass half empty kind of guy. He knows he has a good life but wants more – and isn’t quite sure what the “more” is. When I read the first few chapters I thought, I completely sympathize with this guy. He just doesn’t quite fit.
The trouble with the book is that he finds a place where he does fit, but his life still doesn’t come together. And that’s when even I started finding him a little annoying.
The other real problem with this book is that the friends aren’t well-developed, and since there aren’t a lot of monsters in this book, a lot of time is spent on these under-developed friendships.
Finally, I thought magic itself kind of got short shrift in this book. Quentin and his friends spend years studying magic only most of it is never explained in any detail. I loved the part where they all change to geese and fly to Antarctica though. Normally in fantasy, when people get turned into animals they never actually think like that animal would. Here they really (sort of) see the world through geese eyes, rather than human eyes with wings and feathers. Still, that richness of detail isn’t found in much of the book.
Grossman eventually brings the book to an exciting story and a satisfying conclusion, although it takes him a while.
This book reminds you that Narnia, and Oz, and Harry Potter (which I really wish had a world-name) weren’t just full of magic and excitement, they were full of darkness and physical danger. And that even in the world of magic we have to deal with our own neuroses and problems.
And yet we love these stories, and given the opportunity, would go there in a heartbeat. Maybe that’s because we know they aren’t real, and no one’s ever going to give us that choice.