I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest
That’s the epigraph of The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. It conjures up, among other things, literary history, magic, and even self aware fiction. So you’re prepared. If you’re savvy, it might suggest the end.
Quentin Coldwater is brillant but miserable. He’s a senior in high school, and a certifiable genius, but he’s still secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels he read as a kid, about the adventures of five children in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to that, anything in his real life just seems gray and colorless.
Everything changes when Quentin finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the practice of modern sorcery. He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. But something is still missing. Magic doesn’t bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he though it would.
Then, after graduation, he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real.
I’m probably one of the last people interested in fantasy to read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. I might still be among the uninitiated if it hadn’t been available from my local library via WILBOR. I’d been encouraged to read it a few times by friends, but something kept me back. Maybe it was the decidedly mixed reader reviews; it’s srtuggling for three and a half stars on Amazon and Goodreads. Or maybe the rather ringing endorsement from George R. R. Martin, which even appears on the audiobook: “The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea. … Grossman’s sensibilities are thoroughly adult, his narrative dark and dangerous and full of twists. Hogwarts was never like this.” Before I’d read Harry Potter, a riff on it was worth less than nothing in my head. After I’d read it, a grim realist version seemed almost silly. Had he somehow missed the point?
The truth is, it’s not a dark riff on Harry Potter. That quote is marketing gold, but you’re not looking at a what-if scenario. Better comparisons would maybe be The Catcher in the Rye or The Sun Also Rises. Still, you’d probably wanna cross that with Harry Potter. There is a magical college, after all.
But Rowling was just recapitulating the fictive wizarding school. In 1996, Grossman reread A Wizard of Earthsea, which has about a chapter and a half set in the School for Wizards. While it’s not technically the first, it’s probably the principal. He wondered what it would be like to expand on that section, so he wrote out a chapter and then put that multi-million dollar idea in a drawer. Fortunately, he says that reading Harry Potter brought him back to the idea and gave him something to write against.
Again, this isn’t the same thing as a riff. Books like The Hours (Mrs. Dalloway), Wide Sargasso Sea (Jane Eyre), and the drama Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Hamlet) famously write against respected and well known works, often to great acclaim. Todd Gitlin might call this recombinant culture. Henry Jenkins would call it participatory culture. Grossman’s harshest critics might call it fan fiction. Occasionally he might call it that himself.
The novel presumes the existence of magic and magicians in our world. The attendees of Brakebills, the “very secret, very exclusive magical college,” have read Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. They’ve played Dungeons & Dragons. Every student arrives with some heavy expectations. Are there dragons? Do we need wands? Is Fillory real?
Some of the answers are satisfactory. Some aren’t. Some are both. Just like reality, some of the students know exactly what they want to do with their lives. And some don’t.
Can a man who can cast a spell ever really grow up?
This is, in a sense, the central question of The Magicians. Grossman wanted to write about magic in way similar to how Hemingway wrote about bullfighting. He wanted to construct a scenario a bit like Watchmen, except where people were magicians, rather than superheroes, mostly because they desperately wanted to be. Quentin and his contemporaries are young people facing the same struggles with emerging sexuality, inebriants, and the meaning of life most students and graduates grapple with.
Matriculating from Brakebills sounds, ahem, fantastic. You can do almost literally anything you want. You want for nothing. And you’re a wizard. All you need is direction. They don’t provide that.
In fantasy fiction, the direction is often provided in the form of a quest. The hero knows what she must do because she’s been given instructions. Sometimes they’re vague. Sometimes the instructions are followed poorly. But everything works out in the end. So what happens when you don’t have a quest? Or don’t know one when you see it? What happens when your narrative actually intersects the epic in medias res?
These are great questions because they’re obvious and, relatively, new. The Magicians provides an engaging, engrossing exploration of the answers, the consequences, and the aftermath. It’s beautifully done. So much so that this only barely scratches the surface. Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Kingkiller Chronicle says it better than I could. “Most people will like this book. But there’s a certain type of reader who will enjoy it down to the bottoms of their feet.”
That’s me. I’m that certain type of reader. And my feet are tingling.
Recommended for fans of T.H. White, C. S. Lewis, and Planetary.
Grossman has annotated a passage from the book on (Lit)Genius.
Earlier this month, Deadline reported and author Lev Grossman announced that SyFy had greenlit the long awaited pilot for The Magicians television adaptation. The pilot was written by John McNamara (Prime Suspect) and Sera Gamble (Supernatural), with Michael London and Janice Williams onboard to produce. Fox had previosly optioned the property but eventually declined to order any content.