By Lev Grossman. Published in 2009.
For a book with such an obvious sales gimmick—in this case, “Harry Potter for grown-ups”—The Magicians is strikingly well imagined. It might be opportunistic, but it’s not uninspired, and author Lev Grossman is a talented enough writer to find new ways around familiar elements while exploring fresh themes. The result is a book that’s less a fantasy novel than a dark coming-of-age tale—magic without the carefree whimsy and bright moral lines that usually accompany it.
Grossman’s protagonist is Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant but unhappy Brooklyn teenager who unexpectedly wins entry into a college of magic he didn’t know existed. Since childhood, Quentin has been secretly obsessed with a series of young adult novels reminiscent of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, so being granted the opportunity to study real magic seems like a miraculously fulfilled dream. Yet the revelation of a magical world fails to bring him the happiness he seeks—and it introduces new stumbling blocks.
Quentin’s education at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy is fascinating. Grossman has thought through the details of what such tutelage might encompass, and he manages to make the study engrossing while also emphasizing how tedious it would be, long hours “conjugating” elaborate spells for specific circumstances and drilling hand exercises to build finger dexterity and independence. No simple “magic word” and wave of a wand for Quentin and his fellow students—magic is a craft, difficult to master, with only a few true prodigies transcending basic workmanship to reach a higher plane.
As part of their study, the Brakebills students also spend time transformed into animals (shades of The Once and Future King, one of the many works to which Grossman alludes), and the vivid writing there is some of the best in the book. The eventual journey into a Narnia-like world has that same kind of color and evocative language—what might feel fanciful were it not for the heavy sense of foreboding.
The novel’s episodic structure sags midway through, and the thematic lines there become rather strident and one-note. (Yes, okay: magic—or a change of scenery, or a new school, or some other external change—will not fix an internal issue, like depression. I get it.) Plus, post-college, Quentin and his friends are like outrageously wealthy trust fund kids, with the ability to do everything but no need to do anything, a state that exacerbates their ennui, and although I understand that predicament intellectually, it’s a bit difficult to sympathize. But just when I began to grow impatient with The Magicians, the story took a new turn, growing more nuanced and textured. The final act is shattering.
To be fair, I haven’t read enough of this genre to catch all of the allusions and references, but I still feel comfortable vouching for the novel’s creativity, because emotionally it rings true. It’s not a mere pastiche of J. K. Rowling, C. S. Lewis, T. H. White, and god knows who else. It coheres, it resonates, it has its own truth, and though Quentin Coldwater can be a frustrating protagonist, he’s a compellingly human one. The Magicians deserves the audience it will attract with its gimmick because it’s not a gimmick. For the space of a novel, Grossman makes the normal-kid-discovers-a-magical-world shtick his own.