The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
9/10, a wonderful tale that brings fantasy and magic into the real world
“Harry Potter for grown-ups.” An odd thing to say, since most of the Harry Potter fans I know are over 21. “Like a real-world Narnia.” Another odd thing to say, because Narnia was supposed to be based in the real world of 1940s England, from which the Pevensies escape to Narnia. But those phrases do aptly describe “The Magicians,” the most accomplished modern fantasy in years.
Quentin has just graduated from high school and is preparing for his alumni interview with Princeton. When his interviewer turns up dead, he gets another mysterious invitation and finds himself in a large exam room taking an exam that he doesn’t fully understand. After some on-the-spot interviews, Quentin is admitted to Brakebills, a school for magicians hidden away in upstate New York.
It’s not Hogwarts. The students drink, use drugs, have sex, and make mistakes. Magic, like many flashy things, is a lot more tedious on the inside, requiring not only talent, but dedication and attention to detail. Quentin makes friends and enemies, and graduates with little idea what he wants to do in life. Then one of his friends comes by with the bizarre claim that he knows how to get to the magical land of Fillory, the subject of a popular set of children’s books.
From there, the story goes on, but even in the magical fantasy land, it doesn’t get any less “real.” And besides the engaging journey, the book leaves you with a lot to think about afterwards. The characters learn more than magic; as we follow them through school, we watch them learn that the point of an education is not the learning, it’s what you do with it.
Grossman (who is on Twitter as @leverus and is entertaining to follow) writes well and creates a fascinating cast of characters, a terrific world to explore, and an engaging and thought-provoking plot. He eschews or subverts the conventions of fantasy, making pointed references to quidditch at one point, but the book stands on its own even if you’re one of the three people who’s unfamiliar with both “Harry Potter” and “Narnia.”
“The Magicians” is a terrific read from beginning to end, and I highly recommend it for anyone who liked “Narnia,” “Harry Potter,” or any other contemporary fantasy. It’ll leave you with a wistful longing, but only because it feels so difficult to say good-bye to the characters after having been with them through so much.