“The Magicians” by Lev Grossman
I went into Lev Grossman’s second novel, The Magicians, with some trepidation for two main reasons. First, his previous novel (Codex) had been interesting but had such a disappointingly abrupt ending that I almost thought someone had made off with the last pages and I had a dud copy. (This was not the case. It’s really over that suddenly and annoyingly.) This ending had not endeared Mr. Grossman or his future work to me.
Second, I am wary of anything billed as “like Harry Potter” or as “in the style of J.K. Rowling.” Nothing I have ever seen marketed as such has lived up to expectations and The Magicians in particular appeared not only “like Harry Potter” but bordering on plagiarism. A boy unexpectedly finds out he has magic powers and is sent away to a magical school where he learns about a hidden magical world and has adventures with his band of friends? It all sounded a little too familiar.
So I went in cautiously. I tred softly, I read carefully, and I explored fretfully with a hint of skepticism. It was all undeniably well written, with obvious but not forced erudition and an impressive mingling of imagined circumstances with truthful expressions of feeling. But I didn’t let myself relax. Codex had lured me in with Mr. Grossman’s same fine prose and I still didn’t know how I felt about his apparently blatant rip-off of Hogwarts (here it is called Brakebills).
But somewhere around page 43 something wonderful (dare I say magical?) happened: I realized both that my trepidation was unnecessary and that I was holding something truly extraordinary in my hands. I was holding a book marketed with absolute accuracy that managed to be “like Harry Potter” but simultaneously different and thus in some ways far better than it. Mr. Grossman accomplished something wholly improbable with this book and I am a happier reader for having experienced it.
Mr. Grossman manages to tip his hat to J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, and T.R.R. Tolkein (all at once!) while infusing the story with his own creations to make The Magicians seem remarkably fresh. He isn’t plagiarizing; he is genuinely paying homage to authors he clearly admires and letting his inner fantasy nerd run merrily loose in his own created worlds rather than borrowing theirs specifically. All the same, readers of any of the noted authors will recognize Brakebills as akin to Hogwarts, Fillory as Narnia’s stepsister, and Quentin (our hero) as some mix of Ron Weasley, one of the Pevensie brothers, and perhaps Shadow from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
And Mr. Grossman is wonderfully aware of his own borrowing. His characters do not exist in a place devoid of pop culture; rather, they are actual people who reference Hogwarts or Star Trek or anything that a modern person would. My favorite moment of this had to be when one character (Josh) is discovered drunk and late for a game of welters (some mix of wizard’s chess and a magic duel). He stumbles into a door frame and then abruptly stops himself, tipsily saying, “Hang on. Gotta get my quidditch costume. I mean uniform. I mean welters.” Quinton immediately replies, “We don’t have uniforms.” to which Josh snaps, “I know that. I’m drunk, I’m not delusional.” They know where they are and how much it is like that other magical school (perhaps referenced when the Dean notes another school of magic “somewhere in England”) and Mr. Grossman isn’t afraid to note the obvious parallels. In fact, he seems to have great fun with it.
Additionally, one of the things that makes The Magicians a perfect book to read in any post-Harry Potter state of depression is that Mr. Grossman aptly engages with the deeper questions and darker side of magic (or at least the magic of literature). Where does it come from? Does it really make things easier or just create new challenges we never before imagined? Everyone wishes they could be magical and go to Hogwarts, but is getting that wish really a good thing? Perhaps the “nonmagical” real world already holds enough wonder for us to be content in it, even without real magic.
I could go on forever about the things I liked in this book (in fact, I tried to make a list but failed after I realized I thought almost everything about the book was so laudable) so I’ll leave you with this: The Magicians is, in short, a beautiful story and a book to be read immediately with lively abandon and then savored repeatedly thereafter. It is bittersweet and nearly perfect, with the just the right doses of literary magic (an uncommon skill, much like “real” magic itself), excellently developed characters, and an improbably original plot with numerous threads which, wondrously, all manage to reunite by the end (hurray for Mr. Grossman conquering his ending woes!). I just finished it not three hours ago and all I want to do is read it again. So please, join me in doing so. You will absolutely not regret it.