That’s what makes you different from the rest of us, Quentin. You actually still believe in magic. You do realize, right, that nobody else does? I mean we all know magic is real. But you really believe in it. Don’t you.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Lev Grossman’s The Magicians offers a fantasy world cribbed heavily (and quite openly) from the Harry Potter and Narnia books: schools for magicians, portals to magical realms, a gang of school chums who face danger and adventure together. But Grossman’s world is more emotionally and morally fraught that Narnia and Hogwarts: the characters are a little older than the child adventurers in the source books, and are navigating the realms of love, sex, loyalty, and responsibility at the same time that they’re learning to cast magical spells and travel to the mystical world of Fillory. In her blurb, Kelly Link compares “The Magicians” to Jay McInerney; to me it seems a bit more like Bret Easton Ellis’ “The Rules of Attraction” and Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History.”
The novel is broken into three sections: the world of Brakebills, an American school for young wizards based on the Hogwarts model; the post-Brakebills world, in which the school’s graduates slip into self-indulgent debauchery because their magic can provide them with everything except purpose; and finally an ill-fated and tragic adventure in Fillory, the Narnia-like world of the childhood books that formed the characters’ earliest impressions of magic. The Brakebills section takes up a little more than half of the novel, and is the most deeply realized, with the school’s traditions, curriculum, and rivalries brought wonderfully to life: it’s an enjoyable read, very much a Harry Potter for grown-ups built around the coming of age of Quentin, a boy plucked from the tedium of Brooklyn and brought to the magical hothouse of Brakebills. But it’s the middle section, where the characters navigate (mostly badly) their early adulthood in Manhattan, that is the moral core of the book. When given so much power so young, how can the Brakebills children find their way in a non-magical world?
The Fillory section feels a bit thinner than the rest. Though it’s interesting to watch the characters encounter the talking animals and sinister characters that have been hinted at all along while they discuss their childhood fascination with the Fillory stories, the world of Fillory is not as well-realized as Brakebills. The end of the Fillory story feels rushed, as if Grossman were trying to wrap things up but also trying to include more Fillory details that had been foreshadowed in the first section.
The very end of the novel also feels contrived and tacked on. Quentin’s emotional and moral growth after Fillory has been built around a renunciation of magic and the embrace of a non-magical world (though he has no qualms about using his Brakebills connections to secure a job that requires only that he show up and occupy a large corner office); it’s not a full nor especially well-considered transformation, but for a young magician who has gone through a pretty horrific chain of events it’s a significant change. And then a magic globe shatters his office window: this sets things up for the sequel, but doesn’t feel like an organic development. It’s a little like Doc Brown’s sudden return at the end of “Back to the Future,” and we all know how that turned out …
The characters in “The Magicians” are solid enough, though, that they may be able to withstand a sequel. Provided, of course, that they continue to grow up in tragic, tentative, and clumsy ways.