The Magicians by Lev Grossman
It’s taken me a few days to put together my thoughts on The Magicians, between midterms and Martian Death Flu. I think it’s because The Magicians is marketed improperly, as a fantasy to be read after Harry Potter, or The Chronicles of Narnia. Instead, it’s a remarkably clever and a remarkably vicious deconstruction of those series. It can be brutal if you’ve gone into it thinking it was the former, but it’s very worthwhile.
The Magicians follows Quentin Coldwater, a high school senior who is ridiculously smart and ridiculously unhappy. His only comfort is reading and rereading a Narnia-esque children’s fantasy series following the adventures of the Chatwin children in the magical land of Fillory. Quentin’s life changes when he is accepted to Brakebills, a magical college in upstate New York. Quentin and his new friends experience college as much of the regular world does, and when Quentin graduates, he and his friends spend their time drinking, partying, and being idle. But one day, a friend of theirs returns with shocking news–Fillory is real. And it needs their help.
Quentin, as a character, balances being identifiable with his main traits–being ridiculously smart and eternally disappointed. There are moments where you want to smack some sense into Quentin, but that’s when his marvelous girlfriend, Alice, steps in and does it for us. I have an eternal soft spot for Hermione stand-ins, like Sue Sparrow in The Unwritten, but even that doesn’t cover my love for Alice. She’s quiet, miles ahead of anyone else magically, and, under her calm veneer, wildly passionate. I don’t want to spoil the moment when she finally breaks, but it is marvelous and devastating. Quentin’s crew is rounded out by Eliot, a wry, gay lush, Janet, who feels like she walked straight out of Gossip Girl, and Penny, a punk that drifts in and out of their lives. Grossman, however, occasionally glosses over these characters. Penny’s last actions in the novel happen off-screen, and Janet’s mysterious allergy to the City between Worlds (a thinly veiled Wood between Worlds from The Chronicles of Narnia) is never explained.
Grossman’s writing is precise, spare, and very accessible. He’s also deft at pacing, although I would have preferred to see Fillory take up half the book instead of the last fourth. I tore through The Magicians in two days. Grossman runs through a gamut of tones and moods throughout the novel, from Quentin’s usual malaise to the dopey, hopeful glow of college to the, yes, magic of some particularly inspired sections, especially a passage where Quentin and his classmates must travel the world as geese for an exchange program. In fact, that whole section is wonderful, starting from the geese flight and ending with a difficult test of magic and survival.
An acquaintance of mine mentioned that she found the world-building horrifyingly derivative of Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. However, I think this is because The Magicians is a deconstruction rather than straight fantasy. In order to be effective, a deconstruction needs to hew as close to the material it is deconstructing as possible. This is why Alan Moore tried to use actual Charlton Comics characters for Watchmen, and created his thinly veiled team only after he was refused. Fillory, especially, is alarmingly similar to Narnia, although there’s a dash of Peter Pan to it, since the Chatwins were real. Brakebills, however, is satisfyingly different while also being similar enough for deconstructive purposes. I also quite enjoyed Grossman’s system of magic, which combines hand gestures and incantations.
The deconstruction can be brutal, but it’s very effective. Magic doesn’t solve anything, and it can’t magically change your life–it’s a ridiculously dangerous tool. I was occasionally shocked by how downright cynical The Magicians can be–Quentin dismisses the power of books a few pages in, which I found quite odd, probably because I thought I was in for a straight fantasy at that point. Their petty group politics don’t stop simply because they’re in new and fantastical territory, death is just as arbitrary as it is in reality, and nothing ever lasts. The most devastating revelation comes towards the end, as it manages to deal a death blow to the remaining innocence in Quentin’s life. Describing it as a coming-of-age novel is accurate, if you think becoming an adult means having all the hope beaten brutally out of you. However, The Magicians avoids total nihilism through Alice and especially Eliot, whose adventures in Fillory help them come to terms with themselves and their strengths. The ending is also one of those fabulous endings you can read either way, which is why Grossman’s plan for a sequel saddens me–it robs the reader of one of those interpretations, specifically the one I preferred. I don’t feel there’s any more to explore about Quentin, the eternally disappointed.
Bottom line: Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is not a straight fantasy–it’s a brutal and clever deconstruction of beloved fantasy series like The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. If you’re a fan of either series, it’s definitely worth a read.
I rented this book from the public library.