Book review: "The Magicians"

If you’re reading Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” and you think he’s ripping off Harry Potter, just keep reading — eventually he’ll rip off Narnia just as thoroughly. But that won’t matter, because by then you’ll be hooked.

Despite dipping liberally into the well of successful fantasy tropes — the wizarding boarding school, the magical land visited by a family of English schoolchildren — Grossman’s deft touch melds his winking appropriation of prior authors’ work with a serious approach that takes his borrowed material in interesting new directions.

The novel concerns Quentin Coldwater, a nerd’s nerd, who as a high school senior stumbles through a mysterious magical portal and finds himself with a chance to become a magician. He’s offered a spot at the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, which even from the title is getting into Hogwarts territory.

But while Grossman and Rowling both based their magical schools on the English boarding school tradition, Brakebills has a few key differences.

For one, the student body is older. Rowling’s children start learning about magic at age 11; Brakebills is a college populated by young adults 18 or older. That means that unlike the squeaky clean Hogwarts of butterbeer and snogging, Quentin and his fellow classmates have copious amounts of sex and drink even more copious amounts of wine in between learning hexes and charms.

Equally significant, to my mind, has to do with the makeup of the student bodies. Hogwarts is a public school, tasked with educating every magical child in Britain — and these magical children have their powers innately. “It’s in your blood,” Harry is told, and in Rowling’s world that makes all the difference. Magic is something you’re born with.

Grossman’s magic is different. While there’s an innate element to magic — some people just can’t do it — largely it’s learned. Magic is something that only very smart, very hard-working people can manage to do, as an older classmate explains to Quentin:

"The reasons why most people can't do magic? Well... One, it's very hard, and they're not smart enough. Two, it's very hard, and they're not obsessive and miserable enough to do all the work you have to do to do it right. Three, they lack the guidance and mentorship provided by the dedicated and startlingly charismatic faculty of the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. And four, they lack the tough, starchy moral fiber necessary to wield awesome magical energies calmly and responsibly." ("The Magicians," p. 44)

Students at Brakebills are chosen from around the country from among the very best and brightest. “If they even brought you in for the Exam you were the smartest person in your school, teachers included,” Quentin’s classmate explains. The Exam itself is a piece of brilliance, my favorite bit being a sequence where Quentin is given a quotation, and then asked to make up a fake language and translate the passage into the fake language. Then he’s questioned about the language he just made up, and about the culture that spoke the language, and its geography and society and other factors that contributed to the language’s style and form. Finally Quentin has to translate the passage back into English, “paying particular attention to any resulting distortions in grammar, word choice and meaning.” Not being great at linguistics I probably wouldn’t do well at that, but goodness if it wouldn’t be fun to do.

The net effect is magic becomes something you earn by combining innate gifts with hard work. (At Hogwarts magic takes learning, too, but it’s something that anyone — even lazy nincompoops like Crabbe and Goyle — can become good at.) I personally think that more meritocratic view of magic is a healthier view than the one where it’s something you inherit.

The first half of “The Magicians” is set at Brakebills, and with the exception of one brief, horrific interlude is largely a coming-of-age story plus magic. There’s no Dark Lord threatening the school, no mysteries to solve — just an ordinary course of study to complete, plus the ordinary angst of college life. Quentin flirts with, and eventually hooks up with, the Hermione-esque Alice, who is cripplingly shy, emotionally scarred and the most brilliant student in a school full of brilliant students.

The final chunk of “The Magicians” shifts the action considerably. Quentin, Alice and their friends, having graduated from Brakebills, discover that the fantasy world of Fillory, which they all read about in popular books as kids, is actually real. They visit and defeat a villain who turns out to have interesting connections to plot threads scattered earlier in the book.

Fillory, as most readers will instantly smoke out, is more than a little redolent of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. It’s a magical world, accessible through a walk-in grandfather clock, home to witches and talking plants and animals and a pair of hyper-moral gods who take the form of rams. Fillory is darker than Narnia, and lacks Lewis’s Christian allegories, but the overall effect is similar enough that it could be charitably called an homage.

As epic fantasy goes this section is quite solid. The characters are interesting, the fight scenes elegantly described, the twists appropriately surprising yet foreshadowed. One interesting segment seems to draw inspiration from roleplaying and video games, where the heroes descend into a dungeon and fight off hordes of monsters as they try to reach the center where a “boss” monster awaits.

The crux of “The Magicians,” however, turns out to be its middle chunk, in between the Hogwartsian school of magic and the Narnia-esque fantasy adventure. After graduating from Brakebills (an amusing sequence where the school’s dean gets the graduates drunk and then gives them each a magical tattoo), Quentin and Alice are dramatically accosted by their friends, who graduated the year prior.

"Get your stuff together," Josh said. He grinned even more widely and spread his arms like a prophet. "We're going to take you away from all this." ("The Magicians," p. 221)

But Quentin and Alice aren’t taken to Fillory. Instead, they find themselves anticlimactically transformed into the equivalent of trust fund babies. Having graduated from a rigorous curriculum with an advanced knowledge of magic, they find life lacks all challenge. When a simple spell can acquire all the resources you need with no work, magicians find themselves tasked with finding meaning for their own lives. While it might be presumed that other Brakebills graduates succeed at this, Quentin and company do not, passing their time with alcohol, parties, sex and other pleasures.

In the absence of a Dark Lord, in other words, the greatest danger to these all-powerful young adults is nihilism.

This was the most painful part of the story to read for me. I liked Quentin, and I liked his girlfriend Alice even more. Watching them waste their days in petty, aimless hedonism was tough to read. And while I don’t personally indulge in the kind of debauchery Quentin does in this drifting interlude, the broader sense of nihilism is a danger I understand all too well. Without a goal of some sort to hurl myself into, I tend to just float along. My vice of Web surfing may be more productive than drunken orgies, but the underlying cause is the same.

Moreover, even though in our world magic isn’t real, this kind of post-college aimlessness is a very real thing among young people today, whose whole lives have been geared towards doing well at school — until they suddenly graduate and it’s done. With no real sense of what to do, people drift along, working under-employed as secretaries, paralegals, or baristas; or pursuing some graduate degree they neither need nor want; or simply living at home off their parents’ largesse, whiling away the time with friends or video games or drugs and alcohol.

For Quentin and his friends, the emergence of Fillory proves to be a godsend. Here is a goal, something to pursue. Even though none of them have ever fought or killed anyone, they blithely learn some combat spells and traipse into Fillory, asking everyone they come across to bestow on them a Quest.

It would be amusingly pathetic if it weren’t so compelling. Without a quest, these people are going to self-destruct — as, indeed, emotional fireworks start going off in the immediate lead-up to the Fillory adventure.

In capturing this struggle against nihilism, in throwing his young magicians face to face with the question of how they are going to use these awesome powers they’ve just spent years acquiring, Grossman elevates his novel above the level of pastiche into something interesting and enduring. The interlude of young magicians wasting time in a New York apartment may be less magical than the sections before and after, but it’s the heart of what Grossman is trying to do. Highly recommended.