It should be pointed out that The Magicians is not Lev Grossman’s first book. His previous novel, Codex, was a bestseller. Previous to and coincident with that, he has been the book critic for Time magazine. I mention this because Grossman appeared on genre radars apparently out of nowhere with the original 2009 release of this novel, and has just been recognized with a Hugo Award for Best New Author. But this is a man who had some literary chops before he ever decided to write fantasy.
Little surprise, then, that Grossman acknowledges many of the classic fantasy tropes only to turn them upside down. A brief summary of the plot – a high-achieving Brooklyn teenager is accepted into America’s only college for magic – and you can see why so many of the blurbs mention Harry Potter. But this really isn’t Harry Potter for adults.
We do follow Quentin Coldwater through four years of intense study, and the usual social challenges of the academic elite, but then he is finished, and the question is, what now? Throughout, Quentin has triumphs, but we also see him screw everything up, like a low-speed train wreck, completely predictable but still entirely inevitable. From the beginning, he still thinks of the magical world of Fillory (Grossman’s take on Narnia), discovered through wardrobes and magic buttons, and gets angry at his own magical world for never quite measuring up.
The story is really about a guy who gets everything he thinks he wanted, the chance to live in the world of magic that obsessed him from childhood on, but keeps discovering that not only do “happily ever afters” not really exist, it’s sort of impossible to believe in them as an adult. Magic or no, life is gritty, dangerous, unfair, and nobody gets out of it alive. Coming to terms with that is a part of growing up.
Of course, our protagonist’s journey of self-discovery aside, the story really is magical. Sometimes depressing, horrific, or even mundane, but a compulsively readable, weekend escape, with subtly shaded characters, a very satisfying post-climax plot resolution, and many moments of pure wonder. It’s a rule of fantasy (and much literature) that its characters get beaten down, lose everything, and somehow, in the end, get the job done. But for the reader, the best fantasy is an emotional rescue if you need it, and an invigorating mental vacation otherwise.
The slightly paradoxical fact of this novel is that it’s all about exposing pat, escapist fantasy as a fraud, but in the end, its story – dark and gritty and emotionally genuine though it is – truly is a great escape. This doesn’t undermine Grossman’s message: it’s a great story but we wouldn’t really want to live there.