The Magicians by Lev Grossman (New York: Penguin Group, 2009. 402pp).

Lev Grossman is the senior writer and book critic for TIME. Among several notable publications, he has written for The New York Times, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal. At only forty-two years of age, he is beginning to gain wide acclaim for his work in TIME magazine as well as his novels.

Doubt and Humanity

I love fantasy novels. I find that they provide a way of escape from a world filled with some terrible things. In fact, I re-read The Chronicles of Narnia every summer, and have done so since I was about fifteen years old. I’ve also read the Harry Potter novels, and loved every moment.

Unlike Harry Potter, Quentin (the protagonist) of The Magicians gets snatched into the magical realm just before college, and as a result is a little behind the curve. Fantasy aficionados saw Harry Potter go through magical high school, and with this book they see Quentin attend magical college. When Quentin is accepted for a particular adept magic trick which actually and unknowingly uses real magic, his reaction is one to be expected.

“Part of him, the part he trusted least, wanted to leap on this idea like a puppy on a ball. But in light of everything else that had ever happened to him, in his entire life, he checked himself. He’d spent too long being disappointed by the world – he’d spend so many years pining for something like this, some proof that the real world wasn’t the only world, and coping with the overwhelming evidence that it in fact was. He wasn’t going to be suckered in just like that. It was like finding a clue that somebody you’d buried and mourned wasn’t really dead after all” (37).

The author portrays Quentin as a real human being; he draws his themes from the aspiration to escape the monotony of this world. Quentin just doesn’t believe this change is happening to him, and he fights the reality that he’s becoming a magician throughout the novel. His reluctance to accept this truth makes his character believable because magic is, by definition, extraordinary, and we, too, would act similarly given the same circumstances.

Photo by Dmitri B.

Once accepted into college, Quentin attends classes, studies, and makes friends, and is involved in extra-curricular activities as well. Those at Brakebills College of Magic play an inter-collegial game called welters. Similar to NCAA sports, colleges of magic compete for supremacy in welters, much like in Harry Potter and the game of quidditch. Quentin’s team, obviously making fun of Harry Potter, does not take the sport seriously.

“‘Hang on,’ he said. ‘Gotta get my quidditch costume. I mean uniform. I mean welters’” (129).

After college, life becomes a series of monotonous parties and frequent sex. But, soon a forgotten friend from college greets Quentin and invites him to travel with him to what he thought was a fictional land named “Fillory”.

Fillory

In The Magicians, Quentin and his group of friends religiously read a collection of stories on the land of “Fillory” much like I have my annual Narnia readings. These books on “Fillory” are famous, and children and nerdy adults alike read them for entertainment. Quentin loves the novels and, once accepted into the college at Brakebills, he doesn’t lose his interest in them. Just like my Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe binges during the summer, Quentin delves into the Fillory novels with great intensity. Much like in The Chronicles of Narnia, there’s even a requirement for two queens and kings to rule the land from a magnificent white castle on the coast.

“As he usually did when he was stuck at home, he went on a Fillory binge. The old 1970s-era covers looked more and more dated every time he saw them, with their psychedelic Yellow Submarine palette, and on a couple of them the covers had come off completely and had been tucked back between the pages as bookmarks. But the world inside the books was as fresh and vital as ever, unfaded and unironized by time” (167).

Quentin also wants his own Fillory-like adventure. But fears he never will encounter such fantastical events in such a mundane world. The professors around Quentin try to remind him that he will never really have an adventure, and that magic can be quite boring.

“‘You are not going on a mystical adventure here, Quentin. This process will be long and painful and humiliating and very, very’ – he practically shouted the word – ‘boring’ ” (144).

Familiar Adventure 

Photo by Adam Foster

With super-obvious foreshadowing, Quentin and company finally travel to Fillory, which turns out to be not fictional at all. The group wants the adventure, and they get it; only to be reminded by the equivalent of Aslan, a ram named Ember that the magicians should not use other worlds as a playground for an adventure. Perhaps their own adventure can be found in their own world.

“‘I am sorry you came here,’ Ember said. ‘Children of Earth. No one asked you to come. I am sorry that our world is not the paradise you were looking for. But it was not created for your entertainment. Fillory’ – the old ram’s jowls shook – ‘is not a theme park, for you and your friends to play dress-up in, with swords and crowns’” (351).

There’s a lesson learned here, and Quentin takes it to heart: You may look for paradise and never find it, but you must be okay with who you are, and with whatever may happen along the way. Quentin loses lovers, friends, and confidence. But, toward the end of the story, he finds redemption. He meets his heroes, fights great enemies, and has the adventure he always wanted.

There’s humor, reality, seriousness, sex, anger, fights, drunkenness, collegiality, adventure, mockery, and suspense all present in The Magicians. If you like fantasy novels, read this book. If you don’t like fantasy novels and want to read a complete mockery of fantasy novels, read this book. The Magicians is a fantastic book that you can’t put down if you tried, and one that once you’re done will undoubtedly re-read every summer.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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