The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Viking, 2009.
I had high hopes for this book because of the amount of publicity it has received. It’s been talked about as a “Harry Potter for adults,” which naturally sparked my (as well as many others’) attention. I would have to say that I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Anything that presents itself as another “Harry Potter” is, in my opinion, sure to disappoint.
The book is actually a combination of Harry Potter and Narnia, which is interesting from a sort of meta-literary perspective. The characters in The Magicians actually joke about Harry Potter within the book, so the setting is a world in which Harry Potter actually exists, but Narnia does not. What does exist in Narnia’s place is Fillory, a magical land that can only be accessed by children through mysterious portals that pop up in unexpected places – so…Narnia. The protagonist of The Magicians, Quentin, is a huge Fillory fanboy, so he is delighted to find out that magic is real when he gets admitted into Brakebills, a school for magicians.
Brakebills offers a more realistic, sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll atmosphere than Rowling’s comparatively tame (and younger) Hogwarts – Brakebills’ student population is made up of graduating high school seniors, so what else should you expect at a college for wizards? Brakebills becomes reality for these characters, but Fillory remains a fictional universe existing only in a book series…or so they think. After the characters graduate from Brakebills, they come to discover that Fillory is real, and they get the chance to see it.
One thing that I found particularly funny and charming about the book is that once the characters find themselves in what they thought was a fictional fantasy world, Fillory, they begin to make quips and sarcastic remarks about tropes you would typically see in fantasy novels (i.e. “Josh speculated about the hypothetical contents of an imaginary porn magazine for intelligent trees that would be entitled Enthouse.”) This genre-awareness from the characters is a refreshingly funny feature. It is exactly what you would expect to happen if a real-world teen suddenly found themselves at Hogwarts or in Narnia.
All in all, I would call this book a sort of “Into the Woods” of fantasy literature. Many of the criticisms I have seen of this book are about the “unlikeable,” pretentious characters (most notably the protagonist, Quentin) and the depressing outcomes that continue to spiral downward. My response to that is 1. If you are put off by “unlikeable” characters, that rules out a lot of great literature for you, and 2. though there’s no happy endings in this story, that works for it. I think this is one of its most unique factors. Quentin is someone who yearns to escape the dull confines of reality, like so many of us who have been equally enchanted with worlds like Narnia and Hogwarts. But Quentin actually gets to do it. He does escape. But what he finds out is that his fantasies are much more difficult than what he ever wanted, and that if you take your escapist desires too far, they can literally consume you – much like “Into the Woods,” in which fairy tale characters realize that “happily ever after” doesn’t exist.
The reason I give this book 3/5 stars is not because of “unlikeable” characters or the downward spiral of disasters. It’s rather because there was a lack of, well, magic. Not magic in the literal sense, there was plenty of spell casting, but “magic” in the sense that the reader feels immersed and surrounded by a fantastical world. The reaction to Brakebills and Fillory that the characters exhibit is one of jaded world-weariness, rather than the awe and wonder you expect from being transported to a magical world. This awe and wonder translates to the readers’ minds as well, which is what makes Narnia and Hogwarts so enticing. I was not enticed by the worlds of Brakebills or Fillory because the characters weren’t enticed. But considering the message of the story, this might not have been a poor choice. I still plan to read the next 2 books in the trilogy, because the first book left me wanting to know what comes next. However, it didn’t leave me wanting to escape into either of those worlds…which was, considering the message, perhaps the point!