The Magicians by Lev Grossman
I’m pretty sure that it was a formative part of every 1990s childhood to wait for a Hogwarts letter. I wasn’t the only one right? I turned 11, and even though I obviously knew rationally that of course I wasn’t going to get a letter, its fiction, I nonetheless strongly recall the faint embarrassed pangs of disappointment that I wouldn’t be training to be a wizard. Please tell me that it wasn’t only me. The Magicians may be about a magic school, but more than that it’s about that yearning for a place that doesn’t even exist, a feeling that the life they have isn’t the one they were destined to enjoy. The main difference between me and Quentin Coldwater, the protagonist of The Magicians, is that I stopped agonising about not going to Hogwarts by the time I was 12. Quentin is 17 and still obsessed with the magical world of his childhood…oh, and his magic world actually is real.
Quentin is an extremely intelligent young man, headed with his two best friends for an interview at Harvard. A third wheel to a couple, of which he is madly in love with one, Quentin is plagued by a fundamental ennui. He is obsessed with the ‘Fillory’ series by the fictional Christopher Plover, a series of Narnia-esque books about young English children being drawn into a delightful world of talking animals and Christian allegory, never quite escaping his childlike obsession with the series. Upon arriving at the interview, Quentin finds the professor dead, before being handed a mysterious letter by a paramedic. On the way home, Quentin stumbles into another world, Brakebills, a magic university hidden in New York. After passing the bizarre entrance exams, Quentin’s hidden magical abilities are unlocked, as he trains to become a magician.
Although the latter half of the book feels slightly rushed, I was absolutely captivated by The Magicians the whole way through. Although there are obvious shades of Harry Potter and Narnia, at times it almost feels like a fantastical version of The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s novel about a series of young, decadent students at an elite American university. The Magicians is pure post-modernism, something which doesn’t hide its influences but proudly wears it on its sleeve. There are a couple of charming moments where characters reference Harry Potter, clearly noting the parallels to their magical education and Hogwarts. This lampshading is a smart move for Grossman, deftly deflecting accusations of unoriginality, as he mixes familiar ingredients in a new and extremely enjoyable way. The main difference is the age of the students, with the increased adulthood also containing all of the heavy drinking and casual sex university life entails. The Magicians is extremely exciting and tense, but also regularly laugh out loud funny. The writing is evocative but unpretentious and I found myself utterly drawn into Quentin’s world even before he enters the realms of magic, from page one.
Quentin isn’t always a likeable protagonist, but he is a recognisable one, grappling with an interesting sort of angst. Don’t get me wrong; the angst stricken protagonist is not a favourite trope of mine, but the source of Quentin’s existential misery feels achingly familiar to me, and I imagine many others. His yearning for something else, his inability to recognise the good things in his life and his penchant for self-sabotage are all quite painfully familiar, and it’s a credit to Grossman that he was able to capture these complexities. There are many moments where Quentin could have fallen into being so angsty as to be unengaging, but Grossman always knows when to pull the reader back. The supporting cast are good, with the clique of hipster magicians Quentin falls into featuring a handful of entertaining, well drawn characters. One of my few criticisms comes in the novel’s villain; I loved the character, finding him deeply creepy, but he doesn’t quite play as large a role as he should. His role in a final confrontation feels unearnt, as he hasn’t had the time to be built up sufficiently.
The Magicians strikes me as one of those novels which even non-fantasy fans will enjoy. It’s a book which manages to be huge amounts of fun without compromising complexity. I know there’s a sequel, which I’m extremely excited about dipping into. ‘Harry Potter for grown ups’ may be the easiest way to describe it, but in reality The Magicians is its own beast, and something which deserves to be on any reader’s shelf.