The popularity of web site Will It Blend? is indicative of how people enjoy mashing things together. Of course this kind of sharing and combining has been going on in the arts for quite some time. The new Lev Grossman novel, The Magicians asks ‘will it blend?’ of two rather popular fantasy series, J.K. Rowling’s world of Harry Potter and the tales of Narnia from C.S. Lewis. Grossman’s thoughts on both are tossed on top and then the author begins to play a symphony across the full range of buttons from stir to liquefy. What comes out is not children’s fantasy but at times a rather bitter mix.
Grossman is an author and critic for Time and has written for a number of high profile magazines. He is a talented writer and handles his story telling with skill. His characters have depth and this story takes on a very gritty sense of reality, something that is not often found in fantasy. I was impressed with his writing, yet at the same time I was torn with how I felt about the book. I found it to be compelling and at the same time difficult. It took me a few weeks to process the whole thing and get an idea of why the book impacted me the way that it did. I’m going to lay that all out now, but I have to say that when reviewing fiction I work very hard to avoid discussing plot. In this case, it will be impossible to some extent. I don’t think I’m going to give away anything that the promotional material doesn’t make pretty obvious, but anyone who wants to go into this book knowing as little as possible should stop reading now.
The protagonist, Quentin Coldwater is a nerd. He’s an academic over-achiever living a life of privilege, set on a path of success. He’s also extremely unhappy, feeling disconnected from the rest of the world. He struggles with his inability to connect with others and the meaninglessness of life. He has sought out and found some respite in the fantasy world of Fillory. A magical land created and explored in the books of an American author that lived in England. At the start of The Magicians Quentin in on his way to an interview as part of the admissions process for Princeton. But this does not end up as another normal day for Quentin. Rather than his ultimate destination, Princeton, Quentin ends up at Brakebills. Brakebills is a university in upstate New York where students learn magic.
While Hogwarts was not the first literary school of magic, it is the model Grossman has in mind and he is very up front about that fact. The students take part in a magical game called Welters. At one point a team member of Quentin’s, Josh, is absent at the start of a match. Quentin hunts him down and the following interaction takes place between the two of them.
Josh stood up. He saluted smartly. “Send me an owl.”
“Come on, they’re waiting for us. Fogg is freezing his ass off.”
“Good for him. Too much ass on that man anyway.”
Quentin got Josh out of the library and heading toward the rear of the House, though he was moving slowly with a worrying tendency to lurch into door frames and occasionally into Quentin.
He did an abrupt about-face.
“Hang on,” he said. “Gotta get my quidditch costume. I mean uniform. I mean welters.”
“We don’t have uniforms.”
“I know that, ” Josh snapped. “I’m drunk, I’m not delusional. I still need my winter coat.”
This sliver does a lot to reveal the similarities and differences. Brakebills is very much like Hogwarts in external ways, and completely different in substance. The school is for adults, not children and the life that Grossman portrays is much more in line with reality than fantasy. This is not a book to pick up for a young child. This story contains profanity, sexual content, graphic violence, as well as alcohol and drug abuse. This is where I ran into my first issue with The Magicians. I’ll get to that shortly, but first I’d like to finish laying out what the book involves.
Not all of Brakebills is lifted straight from Hogwarts, though I don’t think the reader with much experience in reading fantasy will find anything that could really be called new. What there is, as I have mentioned, is very well done. Grossman builds up to moments of palpable tension. He pulls the reader into the life of Quentin and shows real finesse at times. His characters very much come alive, in their brief moments of joy and in their many moments of pain, frustration and loss. Anyone who has felt the hurt of being outside, dealing with the cruelty of others or a general questioning of meaning will be able to relate well to the protagonist.
Eventually school is over and the students graduate. And here is the turn that I think the promotional material makes obvious but some may not want to know about going into reading the book. The second section of the story begins as Quentin and his fellow Brakebills alumni find out that Fillory is real. They immediately prepare to set out on an expedition to the land they’ve loved since childhood. That Fillory is better spelled N-a-r-n-i-a is just as obvious as the connection to Rowling’s work. Quentin and company enter fillory using magic buttons that take them to an intermediary world of fountains. Jumping into each fountain takes a person to a different world. They have to take care to jump into the correct pool at the base of the fountain that will take them to Fillory. Fillory is a land of talking beasts and magical creatures.
So what sets The Magicians apart from lesser books that lift heavily from other works? Why is The Magicians a strong story while something like Eragon is a weak rip-off? I think it boils down to two elements. First is Grossman’s strong writing. Even if this were just a big piece of fan fiction, it would be well written fan fiction. Secondly, this isn’t just an homage to the work of others. While Grossman has lifted the settings and externals, the substance is completely different often to the point of taking a position that is completely antithetical to the original work.
My first problem, which I tie to the very adult content is wrapped up in why I read fantasy. I read fantasy on many levels as a form of escape, much like Grossman’s character Quentin did. Much of the fantasy I’ve read is not only fantasy but it is written for children. At the bottom of it all there is no real risk or fear. I read with anticipation, not of an outcome but rather how that outcome will be worked out by the author. There is often death or treachery but it takes on a fairty tale like quality. It does not feel real or cruel but rather cartoonish. Grossman completely jettisons any of this kind of approach. He tackles the safety of these childrens tales and eviscerates it. The violence in The Magicians is not cartoonish, it is often cruel even sadistic. There’s not much in the way of escapism here. What Quentin finds is that magic doesn’t change the basic underlying facts of life, not even traveling to another world does this. This is combined with the fact that much of Grossman’s realism includes behavior and speech that isn’t something that I would consider normal or appropriate. It may be for others but this isn’t a book I would feel comfortable recommending to friends or family.
Then there is my second issue. I’ve read that Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is intended to be a type of anti-Narnia. Well Grossman doesn’t just create an alternative world that is contrary to Narnia. He destroys Narnia from the inside. And this caused issues for me in both sections of the book at times. Not because of ideological difficulties with what Grossman puts forward but because it would frequently push me outside the story as it felt like Grossman would move from telling his own story to commenting on the story of another. It isn’t that what he has to say about the other stories isn’t interesting and that he doesn’t bring up intriguing issues and criticisms of both, but rather that it jarred me out of the narrative as the story became more a work of exposition. Something like the flashbacks to History and Moral Philosophy class that fill so much of Starship Troopers. The author shows his hand, that he is more interested in making a point than telling a story.
The fact that a major component of the book is polemic in nature means much of the discussion around the book will not be about plot or setting but rather about the argument the author sets forth. I don’t agree with Grossman’s premise or conclusions but I do admire how well he states his case throughout the entire book, not only in those portions that might feel a bit preachy. I’ve read in an interview Grossman did about The Magicians that he feels that Rowling lets her characters solve their problems, rather than resting on divine intervention like the characters of Lewis’s works. This is reflected in how he handles the world of each, though I would argue that this is not the case, especially in light of how Rowling’s series ended. I think it does explain why he is so much rougher on Lewis.
Anyone looking for a dark story that questions the assumptions and underlying principles of those that are not so dark should really enjoy this book. Any parent that picks it up for their young one because they hear it compared to Harry Potter is in for a rude surprise. Those looking for a fun little escape from the real world wont find it here, though things are so grim at times they made find the real world a bit of a relief after the weight of Grossman’s. The Magicians held my attention and I was impressed with Grossman’s ability, unfortunately at the same time I was a bit disappointed with how he used that ability. With something this subjective YMMV, and since release The Magicians has hit number nine on the New York Times best seller list.
Title: The Magicians
Author: Lev Grossman