Who like fantasy? 'Cuz I gots a doozy of a tale for you!
by Lev Grossman
Quentin is a typical teen; imaginative, too smart for his own good, and positive he is meant for more than life offers, that somehow his real life has been “mislaid through some error by the cosmic bureaucracy.”
Oddly, Quentin is absolutely right, and his acceptance into the ethereal Brakebills college proves it. After all, it’s not every eighteen-year-old who gets to practice sorcery, as most people “lack the tough, starchy moral fiber necessary to wield awesome magical energies calmly and responsibly.”
With this brief synopsis, a reader can be forgiven for believing The Magicians to be a cynical retread of the Harry Potter children’s series. Indeed, author Lev Grossman layers his second novel with purposeful allusions to J.K. Rowling’s creation, alongside the fantasies of C.S. Lewis and T.H. White.
However, Grossman, the book critic for Time Magazine, is canny enough to comprehend the difference between homage and rip-off, and The Magicians is certainly no rip-off. While The Magicians wears its influences on its sleeve, its presentation marks it as the work of a marvelous wordsmith and a definite talent.
As Quentin advances through his classes, he discovers that the magical fantasies of his youth have little in common with the actualities of modern life. His hope that learning magic “would be a delightful journey through a secret garden, where he would gaily pluck the heavy fruit of knowledge from conveniently low-hanging branches,” is quickly demolished under the practical mundanities of spellcasting.
Stories of the kingdom of Fillory that consumed his childhood (think Narnia) have left him ill-prepared for a world with little need for magic. Grossman layers his story with identifiable pathos as he expertly tracks the transition from adolescent idealism to brooding disenchantment, a period marked by self-destruction and a burgeoning drinking problem.
When a classmate discovers that Fillory actually exists, Quentin sets himself a quest, something to save him from “the ennui and depression and meaningless busywork that had been stalking [him] since graduation with its stale, alcoholic breath.” But an actual dominion of necromancy is a far cry from his daydreams, and Quentin soon learns that a search for self is far easier than a search for magical amulets.
The Magicians is a psychologically astute coming-of-age novel ensconced within the overt trappings of fantasy. Far from the light-gothic sensibilities of Rowling, Grossman’s tale of mysticism is resolutely adult, rife with terror, depression, sexual confusion, and death.
If there is a real weakness to Grossman’s tale, it’s that the set-up and the payoff are unequally balanced. Quentin’s trek through the academics of the supernatural is enthralling, but his adventure in Fillory is sketchy.
The quest is a thrilling interlude, but considering the majesty of what came before, Grossman does a disservice to his characters by rushing the final third. The lackluster presentation of Quentin’s fate, combined with a few loose ends left dangling, hinders the emotional dénouement the story deserves.
Nevertheless, The Magicians is a thrilling entertainment, the finest, most literate adult fantasy since Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Should Grossman ever decide to revisit his otherworldly territory, it should be a trip well worth taking.
VERDICT: MONKEY LOVES
Originally published (expurgated version) in the Winnipeg Free Press, August 16, 2009.