Review: The Magicians

Within the fandom genre, I consider myself a fan of Science Fiction over Fantasy. I’m more intrigued in the sheer variety that Science Fiction presents itself with as well as the notion of humanity (or whatever other race portrayed in any given story) pulling itself up on its own two feet with emperical science. Yet, I find myself coming back, time and again, to fantasy works for the absolute sense of escapism and wonder that I often feel with the books that I pick up. I tend to be particularly picky with fantasy books because it is very rare that a fantasy book will evoke some sort of feeling like that from me.

It is because it didn’t do this, I think, is what I really liked from Lev Grossman‘s latest novel, The Magicians. In this fantastic addition to the fantasy genre, Grossman puts together a book that is radically different than just about every other fantasy novel out there, breaking a lot of the very common elements that seem to define the fantasy genre. On a first glance, The Magicians doesn’t seem to be very different from any number of well known fantasy books. A boy in his teens is brought to a magical academy, where he learns the various arts of magic, in a school that is hidden from the rest of the world. Without presupposition, anyone would immediately label this as any part of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Within the modern day world that Grossman puts together, Quentin, our protagonist, and his friends, are fans of the Fillory series that sees a family of children stumble into a magical world where they often help to fight for good and right in an epic quest. Again, someone would identify this plot as that of C.S. Lewis‘s Chronicles of Narnia. While this book certainly has been influenced by these, and more – J.R.R Tolkien‘s epic The Lord of the Rings is mentioned a couple of times, not to mention the game Dungeons and Dragons, it cleverly turns many of the ideas and themes that defined these pillars of the fantasy genre on their heads.

Grossman’s fantasy world is no different than our own. This story takes place largely in our world, with the normal staples referenced for proper placement, but with a side world of magic. Unlike the rediculously cartoonish version that J.K. Rowling presents (which, even as a fanboying 13 year old, never made sense to me), Grossman’s alternative world functions in much the same way – magic is dull, time consuming and work. The people who study at colleges for magic study (such as Brakebills, in New York), graduate and enter the dull working world and fail to see that their lives have become essentially meaningless. There is a fantastic quote in the book that stuck with me:

“This wasn’t Fillory, where there was some magical war to be fought. There was no Watcherwoman to be rooted out, no great evil to be vanquished and without that everything seemed so mundane and penny-ante. No one would come out and say it, but the world wide magical community was suffering from a serious imbalance: too many magicians and not enough monsters.” (Grossman, 210)

What Grossman has essentially done, was insert real life into fantasy. The mundane aspects are there, but along with that is the cynicism and skeptical nature that one feels for life the more you learn from it. This book comes at a particularly interesting point in my own life where I find the text to be highly relatable. We enter college and expect to change the world, only to find that real life is far more dull than anybody bothered to tell us. The Magicians carries with it a resentful, sullen approach to fantasy, something completely contrary to the grand themes that most fantasy novels portray. Indeed, the main action and villain in the book hardly appear at all; just once early on, and in the last quarter of the book, when the characters stumble upon their quest. Even then, their quest is not a noble one, it is scattered, disorganized and brutal, where they turn out to be pawns in a far larger story that helps to tie the entire book together.

There are other elements to fantasy that Grossman stumbles upon that seems to be largely untried ground, at least with some modern works, the effects of magic and power upon a magician. While books such as Lord of the Rings look to the corrupting influence of power, Grossman expands this a bit and utilizes the theme throughout the story. His characters are unhappy creatures through most of the book, and one character hits it right on the head when they note that magicians are different because they are in pain, and from that pain comes the willpower and drive to succeed and make magic. Another character looks back towards the end of the book and wonders at the sheer power that the students are exposed to so early on, and speculates as to just what type of influence that would have upon them. But, for all the corrupting influences that magic might have upon its users, it is clear by the end of the book, when Quentin has retreated from its teachings, that there is still an irresistible pull and wonder to it that makes it hard to walk away from.

I like this approach to a story, changing the entire focus. In essence, it is Harry Potter, grown up. When I first read Rowling’s series, I was in the middle of high school, and couldn’t have made any critical points about the book if my life had depended upon it. Now, it is as if those major elements have undergone the same sort of transformation and growth that I’ve gone through in the past decade or so since I first read the books. Grossman’s fantasy is darker, far more adult and much more interesting from a storytelling perspective, I think, than all of Rowling’s series put together.

Reading over other reviews of this book, I can see a number of critics and reader who just don’t get the purpose of the book. While it does appear to be very similar to the aforementioned Harry Potter and Narnia series (there is no way to escape comparisons here), it is the themes and tone that sets this book far apart from them. The Magicians presents a far more realistic setting in a fantasy world, because that suits the characters, casting away the usual black and white morality with one that is far more gray. There are few clear cut moral resolutions here. Every character is damaged in their own way – Quentin, tired of life from early on, Alice, who has grown up with parents who are unable to see their meaningless purposes in life, Penny, who is so standoffish that he is an outsider, Janet, who is so consumed with herself that she must be the center of all problems and Eliot who is consumed with greed and lust. Throughout, the characters are often confronted not with a clear and present danger, but with the simple problem of finding their way in the world as role models and loved ones let each other down, or as childhood standbys turn out to be far more than they appear, such as what happens with the Fillory series within the book.

The Magicians is a thoughtful, interesting and dark read. Like his predecessors in the genre, Grossman has put together a highly imaginative and creative tale. While I often turn to fantasy because of its escapism, I was absolutely enraptured with its view of the modern world through a slightly different lens, one that I can not only relate to, but agree with almost completely. While I’m usually a Science Fiction fan, this book completely captivated me throughout, and is likely going to be on my list of top fantasy works.