Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Magicians

The Magicians
© Lev Grossman 2009
416 pages


Quentin Coldwater is an unenthused high school student on the verge of depression, feeling out of place in life itself.  Suffering from tedium, loneliness, and unrequited love, Quentin often finds escape in the magical world of Fillory and Further, a series of children's books that bear a remarkable resemblance to C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. . That all changes when Quentin  receives his acceptance letter from Hogwart's School of Wizardry and Witchcraft , chasing a wind-blown note from a book given to him by a mysterious stranger, passes through an invisible portal and finds himself in a bewildering place -- a place of moving topiaries, where New York's winter has been replaced by a warm summer. Upon seeing a stranger waiting for him, he asks: "Is this Fillory?"

Quentin's discovery is not of Fillory, but of the grounds of Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, an elite private college for young people with a penchant for magic. Quentin, or "Q" as his friends call him, sees Brakebills as what he's been waiting for all of his life: a place of excitement and meaning.  Teenage Q will, in the five years he spends obtaining his magical education at Brakebills, find a kind of happiness he's never known before. He disowns his old life, even ignoring his former friends in favor of his Brakebills peers. But something seems wrong: Brakebills is not a land of excitement and meaning. He enjoys life with his friends, yes, and enjoys learning magic -- a venture consisting mostly of memorizing recitations and arcane hand gestures -- but there's no Lord Voldemort to fight, no Forbidden Forest to explore -- no great adventure to be caught up in. The varied fantasy creatures of worlds like Fillory are absent from Brakebills: it can claim a pixie for a teacher, but that's about it. His graduation from the academy comes as an unpleasant surprise, and afterwards -- as a young twenty-something -- he tries to find substance in a life of sex, drugs, booze, and parties.He searches for some great meaning behind his life, but remains restless. The motony is broken when  a Brakebills student who had fallen off of everyone's radar arrives and breathlessly announces that he's found Fillory.

A magic realm with witches to fight is just the thing for a group of young magicians who have no purpose in life, but what Quentin and his friends find is scarcely fun:  "adventure" is terrifying and costly, and the perils to be experienced may just make Q realize that he may not necessarily want to live with what he's wanted all his life. The monsters of Fillory are far more sinister than trolls and armies of mooks.

I checked Lev Grossman's The Magicians out after seeing an excerpt from it in reader Joy's Tuesday Teaser, and enjoyed it immensely.  Grossman's narrative is charming and funny, although the book becomes progressively darker as the magicians age. Thinking of Harry Potter is -- given the setting of a magical school with a deliberately English feel -- unavoidable, and Grossman refers to the series numerous times himself, along with The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.  The characters themselves are conscious of Potter, often joking about the few similarities. "I'm going to get my Quiddich uniform" says one, before they begin playing a magical game of their own.

The Magicians made for a fun read at first, and matured into something more thoughtful with its characters. Grossman's setting is vast and full of little details that make me wonder if he'll write more. I'd certainly read more, but alas! I have no access to his Codex. I'll remember this most for its early charm and humor: the darker ending was a bit of a downer. I would recommend it to to most fantasy readers, although The Magicians isn't standard fantasy -- more a story about the difficulties of coming to terms with life as newly-fledged adult that has a magical background.

1 comment:

  1. I've heard of this book and keep meaning to pick it up. Since you seemed to enjoy it so much, I must put it on my TBR list.

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