Did you always think that there needed to be more sex, drinking, or 4-letter words in the Harry Potter books? Or that the kids in the Chronicles of Narnia weren’t as snarky, cynical, or full of ennui as the ones you knew at that age? Perhaps that upending of a beloved series of fantasy books was part of the motive for Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians (or perhaps not) but when main character Quentin Coldwater learns that he is a rare genius of magic (we’re talking spells and the circumventing of physical laws) and gets an invitation to Brakebills, an elite American magic school, he says that he’s excited but comes across as bored with the idea as if he were being given the privilege of doing the laundry. In fact, for the first two-thirds of the novel, it seems as if Grossman is trying to make the fantastical world of magicians as mundane as possible. Quentin is not alone, either. He eventually forms quasi-friendships with his fellow Brakebills classmates who all seem equally disenchanted with the enchanted life.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the idea of treating a fictional magic school with mock sobriety and seriousness, and pretending that magic is an actual branch of academic study. However, so little actually happens in the first long half (more like 2/3) of this novel, that I was seriously considering stopping the audiobook partway through (plus the narrator, Mark Bramhall, gave a performance that was so fitting with snobbish prep-school know-it-alls, that I constantly wanted to smack my car audio system in the face). In many ways, the novel was as much about damaged, self-destructive young adults as something by Bret Easton Ellis. Grossman’s writing is actually pretty good. The descriptive details and the tone of voice are both very well crafted. After Quentin flunks his exam project (flying to the moon and back) he wallows in a bit of self-pity and drinking that was actually pretty typical of characters in this novel:
After dinner he borrowed Alice’s key and retreated to the Prefects’ Common Room, where he drank too much sherry, sipping it alone in front of the darkened window, even though all he could see was his own reflection, picturing the Hudson River moving past in the darkness, sluggish and swollen with cold spring rain. Alice was studying up in her room. Everybody else was asleep except for a lone weeknight party that was racketing on in one wing, spinning off drunk students in pairs and groups. When he was thoroughly smashed on self-pity and alcohol and the dawn was threatening to leap up at him at any moment, Quentin walked gingerly back to his bedroom, climbing the spiral steps past what used to be Eliot’s room. He weaved a little bit, swigging directly from the sherry bottle, which he’d liberated on his way out.
He felt his intoxication already turning into a hangover, that queasy neurological alchemy that usually happens during sleep. His abdomen was overfull, swollen with tainted viscera. People he’d betrayed came wandering out from the place in his mind where they usually stayed. His parents. James. Julia. Professor March. Amanda Orloff. Even old dead Mr. What’s-his-name, his Princeton interviewer. They all watched him dispassionately. He was beneath their contempt.
He lay down on his bed with the light on. Wasn’t there a spell for making yourself happy? Somebody must have invented one. How could he have missed it? Why didn’t they teach it? Was it in the library, a flying book fluttering just out of reach, beating its wings against some high window? He felt the bed slipping down and away, down and away, like a film loop of a Stuka sheering down into an attack run, over and over again. He’d been so young when he first came here. He thought about that freezing day in November when he’d taken the book from the lovely paramedic, and the note had blown away into that dry, twisted, frozen garden, and he’d gone blithely running after it. Now he’d never know what it said. Had it contained all the riches, all the good feeling that he was still somehow missing, even after so much goodness had been heaped upon him? Was it the secret revelation of Martin Chatwin, the boy who had escaped into Fillory and never returned to face the misery of this world? Because he was drunk, he thought about his mother, and how she’d held him once when he was little after he’d lost an action figure down a storm drain, and he smooshed his red, smarting face into his cool pillow and sobbed as if his heart were broken.
Eventually I made it to the point where I could tell the characters apart, and thankfully they got to some more juicy fantasy-novel stuff as well (I know you could ask, “Why did you even read this book? You could have just picked up one of the treacly kids books about magic or little enchanted creatures that line the bookshelves of Chapters or Borders.” Despite my complaints, I was pretty keen to explore a new take on the magical bildungsroman, so part of me still wanted to follow where Grossman was leading.) I expected something a bit more satirical (the characters actually sarcastically reference Harry Potter a few times so I thought it might be a bit more of a sendup). After a few slightly-more-exciting episodes, the story does take a game-changing twist when one of the characters acquires a magical device that lets them travel to other worlds. From that point on, the story doubles or even triples its fantasy-story factor, and Quentin and his friends actually seem kind of out of place. Nevertheless, they are faced with the harsh realities of being in a magical land (I’ll bet you didn’t think there were harsh realities in Wonderland, Neverland, or Narnia, but you just weren’t looking hard enough.) There’s still a lot of heavy handed/hearted moping, but the climactic revelation of the only real villain of the story is pretty clever, and it’s the kind of upending of magic-story convention that I was hoping for.
Perhaps Grossman was merely using the concept of magic as a metaphor for change (though his attention to detail suggested that he was a genuine fan of the genre) and how we need to deal with its power as we move into adulthood. However, the experience of this novel was a bit too much like sitting next to the unimpressed kid at a performance who just wants to spoil your fun by attempting to explain the magician’s tricks. Since stories about magic always require the suspension of both disbelief and cynicism, a novel of this kind really rubs those kinds of story elements the wrong way. I can’t say I really enjoyed it (and I’m not holding my breath for a movie adaptation starring Zac Efron) but I definitely recommend this book if you’re a bit tired of the fantasy novel genre and you’re interested in a palate-cleanser (3 out of 5).