What would Harry Potter have been like if it had been packed with self-conscious allusions to The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland? If ‘magic’ and its science had been explored, not at high school level, but in the considerably more dangerous and research-intensive corridors of college, complete with flying hormones and long-term relationships both—can you imagine it then?
Well, if you can’t, there’s someone who’s done it for you. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is a fantasy fanboy’s homage to the tradition his own work hails from and seeks to be a part of. Grossman takes the traditional elements: the quest, the imaginary world, the ragtag bunch of fellows, adds the boarding school flavours of Rowling, and creates a thoroughly believeable sub-world of magic, intrigue and terror.
Quentin Coldwater, along with his friends James and Julia, is on his way to a Princeton interview when his life abruptly changes course from the gifted-and-talented track he had seen it following. Not only is his interviewer found dead, but Quentin receives a mysterious book, the unfinished last in a series about a land called Fillory that he has loved since he was a child. Unable to contain his curiosity, Quentin flips the book open during his walk home and a piece of paper floats out. For some reason, he decides to chase the paper and suddenly, inexplicably, magically finds himself in a compound in upstate New York, staring at the edifice of a building that turns out to be Brakebills Magic Academy.
You know the drill: Quentin gets into this private college, Quentin cannot believe magic exists, Quentin meets a bunch of oddball professors and students, Quentin starts to feel more at home in Brakebills than he ever did with his distant parents. Grossman introduces his own changes to the set formula though, the biggest, perhaps, being the fact that he condenses Quentin’s entire Brakebills tenure (a four year period) into one book and even has room left over for a chronicle of what he and his friends do post-college.
What did I like about this book? I loved its references, its teasing of magical theory that was absent in (nor, indeed, the main focus of) Harry Potter. But what I found most compelling was Quentin himself—how Grossman managed to make him evolve through the course of the book, capturing the change imparted by college, something that comes over most of us. The boy who starts out as idealistic and eager to impress gradually becomes a cynical, jaded figure, one for whom magic is not ‘foolish wand waving’, but the result of long, laborious hours of research and practice. Magic, Quentin realizes, is bloody hard.
But what Grossman really seems to be interrogating is the ‘purpose’ of magic, especially in a world where a) there doesn’t seem to be any ‘dark lord’ or identifiable force of evil and b) the magicians’ powers are hidden from the knowledge of other, ordinary people. It’s Harry Potter without the politics and Dark Lords, without the societal rot. So with no evil to fight, what do all these brilliant magicians do? Quentin reflects on this on the eve of graduation:
It was not considered the thing to look panicked or even especially concerned about graduation, but everything about the world after Brakebills felt dangerously vague and underthought to Quentin… What was he going to do? I mean, what exactly?…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 petty-ante. No one would come right out and say it, but the worldwide magical ecology was suffering from a serious imbalance: too many magicians, not enough monsters.
Without any ‘great evil’ to fight and the world at their fingertips, the young magicians collapse into puddles of drunkenness, debauchery and general lassitude. These kids, once the best and brightest from their school, do nothing after college. Until a Quest rouses them and they embark upon it, glad to have ‘meaning’ reinstated in their lives. Of course, none of them find exactly what they expected, as might, of course, be expected.
The Magicians is not exactly an easy read. It took me a while to get through it, but when I had closed the covers it was with a feeling of having taken a long, leisurely stroll through a museum full of fascinating ideas. Grossman subtly underlines the many assumptions readers bring to fantasy fiction and shows why they exist. He’s right—without ‘evil’, where does magic go? What do you do with your life if you’ve achieved everything you ever wanted by 22 and no longer have to work for a living? Doesn’t it make life a ‘little too perfect’? Dean Fogg, the ‘Dumbledore’ of this universe (only middle-aged and a lot less paternal) says to the graduating students:
‘If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so. Words and thoughts don’t change anything. Language and reality are kept strictly apart—reality is tough, unyielding stuff, and it doesn’t care what you think or feel or say about it. Or it shouldn’t. …
‘ ..The separation of word and thing is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded. But somewhere in the heat of magic that boundary between word and thing ruptures. ..Language gets tangled up with the world it describes…
‘Tell me this: can a man who can cast a spell ever really grow up?’
And that’s the question you’re left with at the end of the book. Has Quentin really grown up? Have his friends? And, most worrisome of all, do we, the readers, trapped in our humdrum depressingly ‘real’ world, really want magic in our lives?
Think about it.