“We need some unicorns or something up in this piece.”
Turns out, we really don’t need some unicorns or something up in this piece, but I’ll come back to that in a bit….
From a one-line plot standpoint, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians isn’t anything new. The story of a kid whose mundane life goes down the proverbial rabbit hole thanks to Magic School is a logline that, of course, brings to mind the Harry Potter series, and a host of similar stories before it (Books of Magic and So You Want to Be a Wizard being two personally-cherished takes on this idea). But Grossman wisely doesn’t pretend to be reinventing the wheel — in fact, within his book’s universe, Harry Potter is as popular as it is in ours, and there are a few references to the popular series dropped in the book (including one about Hermione having some fugged-up British teef). But nobody ever asked Harry if he was too drunk to fuck, and therein lies the difference between this book and that series.
Grossman has essentially written a more grown-up version of the boy-goes-to-magic-school tale. The story’s protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is a smart but disenchanted New York teenager who winds up at Brakebills, a hidden-in-relatively-plain-sight magic school, after a college interview winds up taking a bit of detour. This is a dream come true for Quentin, whose only true love in life is the Fillory series, a set of five Narnia-type novels about young children traveling to a magic realm (a series which ended on a disappointing note with The Wandering Dune, apparently, which included a ship run by large bunnies — “the Wandering Dune-haters always compared them to Ewoks”). But Brakebills isn’t a place of talking rabbits, nor is it Hogwarts. In Grossman’s world, performing magic is a more rudimentary, almost scientific process, requiring painstaking studies and repetition. This becomes most clear during Quentin’s fourth year, when he is faced with an important “exam” which isn’t a bullshit pen-to-paper test like Harry Potter’s O.W.L.s but, instead, is true test of magical fortitude, finding Quentin dropped buck nekkid in Antarctica, with only his magic to help him traverse 500 miles.
The first two-thirds of The Magicians focuses primarily on Quentin’s five years at Brakebills, and this is where the book is at its strongest. Grossman’s writing is not Pulitzer-worthy, but it is competent. He’s created an interesting world and some interesting characters (though, perhaps intentionally, Quentin becomes more myopic and slightly less interesting as things progress, and I found myself wanting to focus more on a few of the other characters). One of the parts of the Harry Potter series that I enjoyed the most were the magic “lessons,” so I particularly enjoyed the portions of The Magicians which focused on how folks learn and employ magic. There’s no “realistic” way to approach how one might perform real magic, but Grossman does a god job of presenting the rules of his world’s performance of magic in about as realistic a way as one can. It’s more than just learning to focus while uttering “impervius” to be impervious. There’s both an art and a science to the process, requiring focus and creativity and an excessive amount of studying and repetition.
The school years were by far the highlight of the book, although when Quentin returns to the “real world” of New York, things looked they were going to keep going in a good direction. In fact, in a recent interview, Grossman had the following complaint about Harry Potter, one which it’s hard to disagree with:
I felt the problem she failed to solve was the question of, “here’s a young man who can do magic, who has defeated the enemy of humanity when he was 18 — what’s the rest of his life look like?” And the best she can imagine is that he marries his high school sweetheart and puts on a big gut and lives in the suburbs. What a disaster!
Grossman opts to keep things more realistic and dark, with a bunch of twenty-something magicians unleashed in NYC doing what you’d expect — slightly abusing their powers and drinking and drugging and fucking. A lot. But then, Grossman essentially brings some unicorns up in this piece, and that’s when the book lost it for me. The book telegraphed from early on that it was going to take a more fantastical approach at some point, so this turn wasn’t a surprise, nor was it a surprise that its fantasy-bend was dark, without unicorns or happy, Christ-like lions. But here is where I found Grossman’s writing to falter, as the book felt much more like the “Forgotten Realms” books I read as a nerdy D&D youth. Walk and talk. Battle. Walk and talk. Magic. Quest. Battle. Etc. While I really enjoyed reading the first two-thirds of the book, this last third was a bit of a chore to get through, and I found myself racing just to be done with it.
In that same interview linked above, Grossman says that there’s a sequel in the works:
Yeah, I originally intended it as a standalone book. But I’ve gotten preoccupied by an idea that would involve some of the same characters in the same world … I don’t know why I’m avoiding calling it a sequel. Yeah, it’s a sequel. [laughs]
I can’t say for sure yet whether I’ll read the sequel. If “the same world” means the world of the first two-thirds of the book, which another quote from that interview at least hints at, I’m definitely in. But if it means the world of the last third of the book, which the novel’s ending absolutely hints at, I think I’m out. In the meantime, I guess I’ll just work on trying to figure out a spell that will help me read and review fifty-one more books in the next forty-nine weeks.
This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Seth’s reviews, check out his blog, Time Sucker, or just read Pajiba.