I promise that I am not really only reading novels about magic this summer. I thought I was going to have to promise that I wasn’t only reading novels set during World War II, but it seems the theme is actually magic. But my friend, Matthew, recommended Lev Grossman’s The Magicians to me, and everything I read described it as Harry Potter for adults. My love of Harry Potter overruled my skepticism, and I have always enjoyed Grossman’s book reviews in Time Magazine, so I thought I’d give it a try.
The Magicians tells the story of Quentin, a depressed, disaffected Brooklyn teen who dreams of some other life than the prep school to Ivy League path set out for him by his curiously absent and self-absorbed parents, his school, and society. His discovery of a man dead in his home, where Quentin was headed for a college interview, sets off a series of small but significant events that lead to his discovery of and matriculation Brakebills, an idyllic school of magic in upstate New York. Friendships, learning, and hijinks ensue, punctuated by Brakebill’s own magical sport and a terrifying vist from a creature known as “The Beast”. Unlike Harry Potter, Quentin’s 5 years of schooling take only the first third of the book. The second third is a raw and gritty orgy of sex, drugs, alcohol, and betrayal as Quentin and his friends avoid post-graduation real life in the youth party culture of New York City, and the last third encompasses the group’s adventures in Fillory, a magical land ripped with magnificent obviousness from C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.
For me, the book, drastically different from Harry Potter in plot and tone, presented a few major issues. First of all, there was only one character that I liked, Alice. Alice was the voice of reason and moderation amongst the characters, and I connected with her intelligence, shyness, ambitions, and very real frustrations. Quentin, on the other hand, struck me as the Holden Caulfield of the magic world, but unfortunately for Quentin, the characters populating his world, like the much derided populace of Holden’s world, are phony, or at least one-dimensional. Besides Quentin and Alice, there is the teddy bear frat guy, the pretty but bitchy girl, and the impossibly cool, preppy gay guy. The characters don’t really expand beyond those stereotypes, and the rest of the characters are even flimsier and, at times, oddly random.
Secondly, there are too many elements in the story that are made much of and then disappear completely from the story. I found myself wondering several times why ink was wasted on various plot elements that seemed just tossed in with no purpose. Likewise, surprises that occurred toward the end of the book were not earned. It is not that I want a surprise to be telegraphed throughout the story. Quite the opposite, actually. I want to be genuinely surprised, thrilled, and shocked yet delighted when I realize how subtle and masterful the set up is. I don’t want to think, “Well, that’s cheap,” or “Where did that come from? That’s stupid.” Unfortunately, the weak set up for the final plot twists render weak and unearned surprises.
Finally, Grossman seems to have bit off more than he could chew in one book. He stuffs so much into the book that his writing remains superficial. He rarely dives deep into anything, simply gliding through his cleverly conceived story. I would have preferred if the book had been separated into two, the first encompassing Quentin’s time at school and mining the great potential for complexity present in Grossman’s characters and their relationships and then second dealing in greater detail and clarity with their time in Fillory. I could lose the New York section; the utter depravity and lack of any moral compass in the section make in a thoroughly unenjoyable read. Instead, there are moments of gorgeous, evocative writing occasionally interspersed with oceans of self-congratulatory, overambitious, and shallow plot.
All that being said, there are moments of intense, passionate, beautiful, and engrossing writing, as a mentioned above. The section in Antarctica is a riot of emotion, an excellent study of the battle between animal and human in all of us. The final battle is thrilling and gut-wrenching, and its heartbreaking final outcome contrasts beautifully with the zen-like focus and calm of the final pages. Grossman’s cheeky sense of humor comes through with modern and witty references to Harry Potter and his purposely overt filching of Lewis’s world of Narnia. Though Grossman would be well-served to turn the a more critical eye to his own writing, it was these moments of brilliance that kept me reading, that kept me engaged, and will prompt me to read the sequel.