In The Magicians, Lev Grossman asks what if our favorite fantasies and fairy tales were real? Not only real, but calling out to us in some strange way to be a part of them. This is exactly what happens in the novel when Quentin Coldwater stumbles into a parallel world of magic and multiple universes. The resulting story is, as many have said, Harry Potter for adults, and it is fantastic.
Quentin Coldwater is an above average high school student on the way to a promising college career at Princeton. That is until he stumbles upon the dead body of the Princeton alum who was scheduled to interview him as part of his application process. Through a series of accidents, he enters Brakebills, a high school for magically gifted teenagers hidden in upstate New York. Over the course of five years here, Quentin studies obsessively, endures harsh training, makes new friends, and falls in love. Most importantly, he unlocks his potential for magic and finally realizes, as he had always suspected, that there was something more in store for him in life.
That something more turns out to be the discovery of Fillory, the mythical setting of Fillory and Further, a series of fantasy novels by Christopher Plover that happen to be Quentin’s favorite. Like C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series, the residents of Fillory await the arrival of the “Children of Earth,” who are the only beings that can rule and bring peace to their land. Quentin’s arrival in Fillory, along with his classmates Alice (also his girlfriend), Eliot, Penny, Janet, and Josh, set in motion a series of events that will put the future of Fillory in jeopardy and their own lives in mortal danger.
There’s something sort of strange about reading Grossman’s book, especially compared to larger series like Narnia, Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings. I think it has to do with the rapidity with which Grossman moves through his story. Though Quentin and his friends spend five years at Brakebills, it feels like we have a Cliffs Notes version of their time there. On the other hand, Grossman seems to weave some magic of his own as it also feels like we intuitively know more about their experiences than what he shares with us. This is one of the book’s greatest strengthens in that it does not bog down the reader in explanations of mythology or magical devices or spells.
In talking about his Game of Thrones series, George R. R. Martin reflected on The Lord of the Rings and other fantasy series and noted how it seems like none of the characters ever had sex. There is, no doubt, something of this critique present in Grossman’s approach to the genre. The characters in The Magicians are fully human…and fully teenage. They are ruled by wild emotions and even wilder hormones, both of which are whipped into a fury by drug and alcohol use. These characters also embody, sometimes to an annoying degree, the sense of teenage ennui that often plagues the over-schooled and uninspired. You certainly don’t see this in any of the Harry Potter characters who always seem so eager to take over or participate in the destruction of the world. The friendships feel more realistic as well in that they initially feel like they could break apart at any moment but gradually strengthen in ways that the characters do not fully comprehend even at the end of the book. Above it all, though, Quentin and Alice’s relationship is beautiful, heartbreaking, and frustrating…and one of the best aspects of the book.
Grossman’s novel is extremely imaginative. Even though he is clearly drawing from and in conversation with Lewis, Tolkien, and Rowling, the way in which he weaves them together almost makes the reader forget how intimately his predecessors are a part of the story. More importantly, his own fresh contributions to the genre makes for one of the more captivating contemporary fantasies you’re likely to read. Not only is The Magicians wildly entertaining, it’s packed with a host of themes that open up opportunities for lengthy discussion. At play here are issues of power and responsibility, good vs. evil, theodicy, the nature of reality, and even theology. The creators (?) and former rulers of Fillory are two rams (sacrificial lamb parallels?), Ember and Umber, who have become imprisoned at the hands of an unlikely invading force. Despite their imprisonment, Janet’s vehement criticisms of their “failings” might parallel our own questions of how a good, loving God can allow evil to happen. Of course, Ember’s explanations of (or attempts to explain) the rules of their universe, his existence, and (non)action in the world might again parallel our finite attempts to understand the world around us.
In keeping with the woundedness of the ram Ember, there’s something important in Professor Fogg’s advice to his graduating class that finds some resonance with Christian teaching. On the eve of their graduation, he tells them:
“I have a little theory that I’d like to air here, if I may. What is it that you think makes you magicians?” More silence. Fogg was well into rhetorical-question territory now anyway. He spoke more softly. “Is it because you are intelligent?” Is it because you are brave and good? Is it because you’re special? Maybe. Who knows. But I’ll tell you something: I think you’re magicians because you’re unhappy. A magician is strong because he feels pain. He feels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it. Or what did you think that stuff in your chest was? A magician is strong because he hurts more than others. His wound is his strength.” (217)
As the story progresses, readers will see that his assessment of magicians do not apply to all of the main characters, or if it does, it is to varying degrees. Oftentimes, these magicians’ woundedness comes about as a result of their own selfishness. At other times, however, it is a result of their inability to find a home in any single world. They are caught between universes, magicians who don’t necessarily belong on Earth and Children of Earth who don’t necessarily belong in any other universe.
This latter difficulty is part of the brilliance of Grossman’s work. Quentin et al’s arrival in Fillory brings with it disastrous consequences. And why shouldn’t it? After their first violent encounter with some inhabitants of Fillory, Quentin said, “‘We were breaking into their home.'” To which Penny responds, “‘Glory has its price. […] ‘Did you not know that, before you sought it?'” Quentin counters, “‘Well, I guess they paid the price for us, huh?'” As wonderful as Quentin thought visiting Fillory would be, he never once dreamed of the destruction that his presence could bring, even though he had good intentions.
Lev Grossman has made a wonderful contribution to the fantasy genre with The Magicians. I’m glad it’s taken me so long to get around to reading it because the sequel, The Magician King, just released yesterday. There’s enough in the first book to provide material for three movies, which makes its absence on IMDb.com all the more surprising. If you were or are a fan of Narnia, Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings, this is definitely a must-read that will have you immediately picking up the sequel.