Lev Grossman – The Magicians

  • Lev Grossman, The Magicians, Viking, August 2009. 416p.
  • A high school senior finds himself pulled into a new world as he goes to a magic prep school in upstate New York. And there’s another plot about an alternate-universe Narnia.
  • This is for: Those who thought that what the Harry Potter Books were missing was sex. Also, anybody who never thought that they would come to appreciate J.K. Rowling’s glacially placed plots.
  • This is not for: Those who don’t already have a deep love for books with magic in them. Probably Christian fundamentalists (this has occult magic AND premarital sex!)

Magic has always been my favorite conceit from fantasy literature. I’ve never been much interested in medievalesque court dramas, or warrior knights or anything like that. When I was younger, I would pore through the meager fantasy shelves in our small-town library looking for something that hit my sweet spot. I still have that tendency, so I thought that even if it wasn’t particularly well written or plotted, I would have a good time reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. I guess that the book passed that absurdly low bar; I certainly didn’t not enjoy reading it, but most of the time I was frustrated because I could see glimpses of a much better book poking through the prose. Here are four of my big complaints:
1. When it isn’t clear whether you’re parodying a genre or working within it, self-reference comes across as insecurity.
The Magicians references the Harry Potter books explicitly several times throughout the book. At one point our hero, Quentin Coldwater (right?) wishes that he had access to a spell like one in the HP series, and another time refers to himself and his two friends as being like Harry, Ron, and Hermione. This is consistent with the world that Grossman has built: Quentin lives in our present-day world, and Rowling’s books have been so influential that it’s impossible to imagine a book set in a magic boarding school that doesn’t confront them one way or another. It becomes a problem, however, when these references don’t add anything to the story, and come across as defensive.
Many of the self-referential aspects in The Magicians read as parody or a subtle critique of the conventions of magic school novels and the HP series in particular. At several points Quentin rolls his eyes at the Anglophilia contained in the grounds and program of Brakebills, the upstate NY Hogwarts analogue, as well as the school’s curfew and year divisions. Yet Grossman tries to play it straight as well. Like Harry at Hogwarts, Quentin loves Brakebills so much that he hates going home and feels bored and apathetic when he is not there. The references then come across as defensive–like Grossman acknowledging that he’s working with well-established tropes, and asking you to not hold it against his novel.
2. School-centric books live and die by the relationships contained in them.
Perhaps another reason that Grossman explicitly references Harry Potter is to shut down comparisons between the books. This would be a smart reason, because The Magicians does not come off favorably in that comparison.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the Harry Potter books are far from perfect, however one of the things that JK Rowling got absolutely right was the pacing and scope of the plots that she could execute in one book. The HP books generally cover a school year, and the somewhat leisurely pace that the books move at allow us to get a real picture of a year in shorthand: the progress that Harry makes in his classes, the changing relationship that he has with his classmates in different books, his strengths and weaknesses as a student. These classroom scenes introduce a lot of mythology as well, but it rarely feels like exposition.
The Magicians has such an absurdly large scale that there is simply no room for this kind of detail. Quentin is supposed to have attended Brakebills for a full five years of his life, yet with the exception of a very well done sequence that covers half of his fourth year at the school, we never get a real sense of how Brakebills operates as a school. This is another example of the trouble with hewing so close to cliched magic-school tropes. We’re given cliched settings and situations then asked to take our protagonist seriously. It doesn’t work. The climax of the book hinges on the fact that you give a shit about the supporting characters (or, hell, the protagonist). I didn’t.
3. This book’s time-line is absurd.
One of the most consistently frustrating features of The Magicians is not so much that it’s a bad book, but that you can see how there could have been about three really good books in its place. This is because: a) it has an awkwardly large timeline, and b) this book is two books mashed together.
The book opens during Quentin’s senior year in high school. In the following 400-odd pages: admission to a magic school, four academic years of same, three summers, a semester abroad, a few months of post-graduate lounging, preparation for a trip to an alternate world, and a couple months in a thinly-disguised Narnia. If this sounds like a lot of ground to cover in not very much space, you still have no idea. Full years are explained away with a sentence or deus ex machina. There’s simply no room for true character moments, only exposition. And considering that Brakebills and the book’s mythology are already caricatures, there’s really not a whole lot of room for interesting writing.
4. Any emotional climaxes or mature ideas are completely unearned.
Grossman certainly tries to have emotional arcs and journeys. A few characters die. Quentin cheats on his (flatly written) perfect girlfriend with his slutty friend. Quentin’s perfect girlfriend harbors secret pains. At no point did I care about any of these people, therefore I was bored silly by these subplots.
The single most frustrating passages come at the end with two complex events: Quentin and his friends take on the monster that has been killing off Narnia, and Quentin decides to give up magic. There are great ideas here, and the writing is devastatingly effective. It almost, but not quite, hits the mark. The problem is that the foundations upon which those passages rest are not sound. Narnia (Fillory) is something we only consider through Quentin’s eyes–we’re never given a reason why we should care. And in the second case, I didn’t feel like Quentin’s love and need for magic was ever expressed in his character, only in the exposition.
In short, it’s annoying to have these good ideas–ideas that you could build while books from by themselves–placed among a book that doesn’t take itself seriously. Brakebills is supposed to be the equivalent of magic college, and yet there are curfews, year segregated dorms, and prep-school style uniforms. It’s nakedly apparent that this is a way to include “edgy” scenes of alcohol, drugs, and sex while keeping the boarding-school aesthetic and British preppiness from the books Grossman is cribbing from (not to mention placating school library purchasers). And the real-world literary references are defensive and plastic. Quentin and his friends use “Magic Missiles” for Gods sake (just because the text acknowledges the D&D reference doesn’t make it any less lame)!
I would not recommend this book. It’s not awful, and the only reason I’m being hard on it is because it was so well reviewed. If you’ve been looking for a mature, more realistic Harry Potter, this isn’t it.

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