Review: The Magicians

With a 2009 publication date, The Magicians isn’t exactly the freshest title on the new releases pile. In fact, I’m not sure why I didn’t read this sooner – like its awkward protagonist, Quentin, I too have been completely sucked into imaginary worlds full of talking animals and the battle between good and evil, and as a children’s librarian with a healthy love of salty language, you’d think I would have dove headfirst into a book some reviewers were calling “a Harry Potter for grownups, but with sex and booze.”

For whatever reason I missed it, which makes it all the sweeter to read now.

Author Lev Grossman answers the “what if” that lives in the heart of every fantasy lover – “what if I could get out of this shitty, billboard-clogged, “real” world and into a place where magic is real and adventures await?”

But it turns out that “what if” is a dangerous question no matter which world you’re living in. Quentin, the morose high school math genius whose perspective frames Grossman’s homage to classic children’s fantasy lit, knows that he is always one failed magic trick away from being expelled from Brakebills, an elite college for magic. And yet he isn’t entirely in his own world, even though it is so Hogwartsian that Quentin and his friends make quidditch jokes. The real magic, Quentin still secretly feels, lives in Fillory and Further, a five book series written by a stodgy English bachelor in the 1930s.

Grossman’s descriptions of Fillory are such dead-on riffs on the Chronicles of Narnia that it’s hard not to feel embarrassed if you loved the books (and I did). Feuding ram gods, chronological dissonances, quarrelsome British children, and the constant threat of evil forces stopping “time itself, trapping all of Fillory at five o’clock on a particularly dreary, drizzly afternoon in late September” all mimic well-worn Narnian tropes. And it’s clear that what Quentin needs from rereading the Fillory books are both the childish comforts of imaginary friends, as well as a sense of purpose. After all, in Fillory the battles are as black and white as good and evil. The right thing to do is always clear. Not so much in Brakebills, which is something like a Bret Easton Ellis novel but with spells, and not in young adult life, which is full of ambiguity and inexperience.

I don’t want to say much more without spoiling where Grossman goes with all of this but I do want to comment on his delight in language, and how his acuity for dialogue gives the novel both levity and sparkle. There were so many passages that made me laugh and want to read them out loud, including the observation that one classmate was “a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking fucking time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog.”

Nice, that. But at the same time Grossman also pulls of a remarkable study of regret and longing, of vengefulness and love, and even of the odd heroism that lives inside crushing disillusionment. Such themes housed within the framework of beloved children’s fantasy as seen through adult eyes make for a book I won’t forget anytime soon.

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