“Are you kidding? That guy 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. To tell you the truth I’m kind of glad he hit you.”
Thank you, Lev Grossman. Always a pleasure to know my place in the world as a blogger. Grossman’s The Magicians is usually billed as a Harry Potter-Narnia conglomeration, and while I can see why it is dubbed as such, it’s not—really.
Let me be clear: I absolutely love both Harry Potter and Narnia. I have waited in midnight lines for HP books and movies, and when I was 9, I saved up my allowance and bought a boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia from the Scholastic book club that I still reread almost every time I go home. But Grossman’s The Magicians treats magical schools and adventures with a certain misanthropic cynicism that I happen to enjoy at this point in my life.
Quentin Coldwater is at the top of his class in everything. He’s slated to have his choice of the Ivy Leagues, if he can fend off all his cutthroat academic equals. Does he care? Is he happy? Not particularly. He dreams of Fillory, the magical land visited by British siblings in his favorite childhood books (which bear distinct similarities to, if not are replicas of, Narnia and the Chronicles). In Fillory, you could be special. In Fillory, you could really prove that you were worth something.
But wait—Quentin receives an invitation to Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. He is special. But Brakebills turns out to be less like Hogwarts (although there are passing—usually drunken—references to Quidditch and Hermione’s buckteeth) and more like the college experiences enjoyed by normal individuals: Quentin makes some great friends, starts dating a nerdy sexbomb, and spends his time having houseparties. Actually, though, he gets a little sick of it—he’s stuck in this bubble of self-involved twerps who think they’re something special. But really, in the scheme of things, they’re not.
It’s all good, though. Kinda. Post-college is more drunken debauchery, including some forays into sketchier stuff from his friends’ Manhattan penthouse. None of this magic stuff has really been quite as cool as Quentin thought it would be.
But wait—a third huge plot development occurs (this book is jam-packed, by the way—don’t read it unless you’ve got a fair amount of time on your hands and are in relatively good cardiac health). Quentin and his friends find a way to actually go to Fillory. Now Quentin can prove himself as the questing magical adventurer he always knew he was.
One of the reasons Quentin loves the Fillory books is when the children happen across an entrance to it, it’s like “opening the covers of a book, but a book that did what books always promised to do and never actually quite did: get you out, really out, of where you were and into somewhere better.”
That’s what Quentin is searching for throughout the entire book, and that’s what he thinks he has found once he finally gets to Fillory. But is Fillory as great as he’d always thought it was? What happens to people who go through life always waiting for the next big thing—and then find it? What are you supposed to do once you get there?
I liked this book for its magic, for its adventure, because it was recommended to me by a list for adult Harry Potter readers. And it really is a good fit for that list, but not because it’s about a school of magic.
As a recent post-graduate (and a member of the true Harry Potter generation), I can tell you that all of Quentin’s misdirected cynicism and debauchery rang fairly true to me. Not in the sense that I, too, am living a wild and hedonistic life (just today I managed to bend my knees without crutches! Then my mom took me out for froyo), but because I totally get what it’s like to wonder when something really cool is going to happen. When is my hard work going to pay off? Why can’t the magical stuff I read about as a kid be real? Why is life just so dang boring most of the time? (What if you’re not the Chosen One? What if you don’t happen to stumble across a fantasyland of Christian metaphysics?)
The Magicians does not answer these questions. It does not put a positive spin on them (or on anything, for that matter—I had to have a short recovery period after finishing this one). It attempts to teach you things only in the sense that it brings up these questions and forces you to think about them. Which could be the kick in the pants you need. Or it could just send you spiraling down in a fit of apathy. Take your chances.
He was going to sign the papers and he was going to be a motherfucking magician. Or what the hell else was he going to do with his life?