Lev Grossman’s highly acclaimed new novel, The Magicians, tells the story of Quentin Coldwater, a high-school junior of above average intelligence who is unhappy and dissatisfied with his life. He has always felt that he was meant for a greater purpose in the world, that he would one day discover a destiny involving magic and adventure, similar to the kids in his favorite books from childhood, which he still secretly reads and enjoys. But eventually Quentin has to face the fact that the universe has no special plans for him and that he must continue to plod on through life, just like everyone else.
But when Quentin shows up for his Princeton interview, one day, he finds the interviewer dead. As he leaves, he is presented with a piece of paper which leads him to the Brakebills College of Magic. Finally Quentin is offered the life he has been dreaming of for so many years.
Training to become a magician is a lot harder then Quentin had imagined, and many of the troubles that he had hoped to leave behind, have followed him to his new life. But there are definitely some benefits at life at the College of Magic, such as Quentin’s new circle of friends, friends who will stick by Quentin when things get tough and will stand by his side when he finally gets the chance to fulfill his childhood dreams.
When first hearing the plot of The Magicians, many readers are likely to think of Harry Potter, due to a few similarities in the basic story, but Grossman anticipates this and shrugs it off with explicit mockery of quidditch and Hermione Granger’s teeth.
While there are many parallels between Brakebills and Hogwarts, Grossman actually takes his inspiration from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, based on her fictional School of Magic on Roke Island. Le Guin is not an exclusive inspiration; rather The Magicians is filled with references to well-known works of fantasy. Grossman doesn’t neglect to reference J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or borrow from the most widely known lore of Dungeons & Dragons.
Perhaps the most important allusion, however, is Quentin’s obsession with fictional author Christopher Plover’s “Fillory and Further”, a series more than reminiscent of the Chronicles of Narnia. This book-within-a-book plays a prominent role in both the character development and the plot, and Grossman practically uses his novel as a meta-critical review of the works of C. S. Lewis.
Harry Potter? Chronicles of Narnia? If you’re expecting a world of magical wonder and excitement, you won’t find it here. The Magicians is dark and gritty, like a grimy cloud of coal exhaust that hides any hope of a rainbow. It is evident to the reader that the Brakebills curriculum is designed around a dark and disturbing art – and unlike Star Wars, there exists nothing other than the Dark Side of the Force. Quentin and his friends, Alice, Eliot, Josh, Janet and Penny, are all capable of magic because they are deeply unhappy. In particular, Quentin’s inner melancholy has no boundaries; his dissatisfaction is a primary driver in this coming-of-age psychodrama.
Alcohol abuse and sexual escapism are rampant, and it is obvious from early on that Quentin is not supposed to be an affable protagonist, nor are his companions. Of all of them, only Alice is likable in any way, but the author makes her suffer for it. There is nothing pretty about this story, except for the illusory happy-land of Fillory – and Grossman makes it clear that such hopes and dreams couldn’t be more naïve. While Quentin loves Fillory as much as we love Narnia, Grossman uses it to make it clear that Narnia is a fool’s tale: it lacks the agonizing complexity of reality. It is magically simplistic, too neat and clean to represent the emotional convolution of the real world.
From an academic perspective, Grossman writes a modern marvel; it is one of the few works I’ve read that successfully builds on top of widely-known fantasy works without coming across as tacky or lazy. The writing style is sophisticated, and the text is stimulating and erudite. While the overall execution has its spotty moments, it is generally excellent, primarily relying on the intensity of the character development rather than forcing the story along rigid plot lines. Grossman’s antagonist is cleverly crafted; it doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that the chief villain is none other than a projection of who Quentin could become. Unlike many of the novels I’ve read lately, Grossman masterfully takes the time to build a clean resolution, but not one that is closed to interpretation - he wraps up the loose ends but leaves it to the reader to decide whether Quentin makes the morally correct choice and whether or not he will ultimately succeed.
Surprisingly, Grossman leverages these sophisticated successful literary techniques well enough to give The Magicians a dramatic sense of authenticity as its own work, rather than merely a derivation of the works the author builds upon. This is not a trivial remark; The Magicians is a solid story, satisfying and meaningful even if one has never read the works it references.
Yet while I respected, appreciated, and even admired The Magicians, I would be reluctant to say that I truly enjoyed it. Grossman makes it clear that there is nothing enjoyable about magic, the people that wield it, nor the lives that they choose to lead. He works hard to deliberately suck the enjoyment out of it, and considering the joy we’ve gotten out of Dumbledore and Aslan, that’s quite an accomplishment. The Magicians is heavy-handed, but only because it is essential to the story – and this makes it a success. If fantasy works are intended to be an avenue for escapism, then Lev Grossman’s tour de force is escapism from your everyday rote fantasy novel. While it may not be the happy fantasy you want it to be, it is the dark and provocative tale it is meant to be; few tales make you question your childhood fantasies, and in that respect, The Magicians delivers. Though I wouldn’t recommend it as light-hearted reading, those who are looking for something more sophisticated will find Grossman’s novel a stimulating alternative.