Viking, 416 pages
Lev Grossman may be best known as Time magazine’s book critic and one of the editors of Time’s Nerdworld Blog A Blog about Geek Culture: (http://nerdworld.blogs.time.com/), so he brings impressive literary chops and an authoritative genre background to the table before one even opens his impressive novel, The Magicians. In Grossman’s novel, magic is real and one can be educated in the history and use of the art at many schools around the world, but Grossman’s protagonist Quentin Coldwater is accepted and educated at Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy, in New York. Quentin is a disaffected youth, at 17 he is one of the brightest minds in his high school and probably the State. We are introduced to Quentin as he is doing a card trick, the first of many foreshadowing events in the novel.
A school for magic will sound familiar, for not only has JK Rowling given many readers the magical school of Hogwarts, before her Ursula K. Le Guin gave readers the School of Magic on Roke Island in her landmark Earthsea novels. The primary difference is that Grossman’s protagonists are older, supposedly more mature – college age. The comparison couldn’t be avoided and since Grossman specifically pointed to Le Guin as inspiration, it shouldn’t be ignored.
Quentin is the protagonist and unlike his fictional predecessors, he is completely cognizant of magic and fantastical lands. Granted, those fantastical lands are fiction, in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and the Fillory of Christopher Plover fictional author in the novel, so Quentin doesn’t arrive at Brakebills unaware of magic, he just didn’t think it was real. Grossman balances the sense of wonder that is a college of magic with the mundane real life aspects of attending one, like an entrance exam and classes.
Along the way, Quentin tries to fit with his peers. Prior to being a student at Brakebills, Quentin often felt like a third wheel, for the girl who captured his affections, Julia, only had eyes for his best friend James. Simply look at their names – James and Julia are fairly typical names and both begin with the letter J, while Quentin’s name begins with possibly the most enigmatic letter, Q. Eventually at Brakebills, Quentin is accepted into the clique known as the Physical Kids and here he gets the recognition and social acceptance for which he was searching. With each step in the advancement of the plot, Grossman lets the readers know this book is more adult in nature – take for example a scene involving two male students performing a carnal act, or a later scene hinting at magical orgies. In such scenes, Grossman implies much and allows the reader to follow up internally with what might or might not occur in such scenes and in both cases what Quentin sees is just a hint at how far from safe the world of magic is.
Each year the students learn something new and are eventually placed in a certain magical Discipline – except for Quentin since his Discipline is difficult to determine. Quentin and his girlfriend Alice are bumped up a year because of how adept and skilled they are at using magic, which sets them apart from the kids in their year of college. They also left behind Penny, one of the other students who took the exams at the same time as Alice and Quentin. Penny is a frustrating character and in some ways, more symbolic and a plot device than the other characters, but more on that later.
Once in their final year, all students disappear for months at a time and those who return tell nothing of it to those students who have yet to make that same pilgrimage. During this absence from Brakebills, Quentin and his peers are transmogrified into geese and fly for days until reaching Brakebills South. These scenes worked just as well as anything else in the novel and details are innocuously peppered and connected later in the novel that further enrich Grossman’s novel and world.
Grossman’s writing is subtle and relaxed on the whole, but like the sex scene between the two male students I mentioned earlier, he will throw a sucker punch (in a good way) in the midst of otherwise well-flowing narrative. In two cases, this comes in the form of Penny, one scene of which is literally a sucker punch from Penny to Quentin. Another scene (not with Penny) involves a standard lecture, with Quentin being bored (as most students tend to get during college lectures) when suddenly the Beast appears shocking everyone including the instructor and killing a student. These “sucker-punch” scenes occur even more explicitly once the Physical Kids finally arrive in Fillory. Grossman shows how magic might work in the real world in an effective manner, with possibly terrifying implications. Perhaps the strongest parallel I can draw here is how well Alan Moore / Dave Gibbons showed the effects of superheroes in the real world in their landmark graphic novel Watchmen. In this sense, Grossman illustrates just how unsafe magic could be, especially in the unpracticed hands of young college students, and even older students and thos who graduated – perhaps the axiom a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing applies. Gone is the safe illusion of magic as Quentin and his friends soon realize. Just like Watchmen, The Magicians is a work I can see myself returning to multiple times in the future.
As a coming of age novel, dealing with that awkward transition from post teenager to adult, I found many resonances in The Magicians. Grossman captures the dissatisfaction with self that many college-aged people encounter as they try to discover just who they are and who they want to be – myself included. That essence of looking forward to the next thing, being frustrated when it arrives, only to seek the next thing is at the heart of who Quentin is and is something I know I’ve dealt with many, many times. In capturing what its like at college, Grossman’s narrative, in some ways, reminded me and affected me in the same way as Stephen King’s short novel Hearts in Atlantis – specifically how those times at college are like no other, and how the friendships you make at college are different and hold a unique place in our memories.
While the pacing for the large part of the beginning is very considered, along the way Grossman builds an impressive foundation for his exciting final act. In this respect, I felt the novel similar to Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, although The Magicians was more enthralling. The emotional nature of the build up does keep the tension high and with each connection made from later in the book to events in the earlier part of the novel, Grossman’s acumen as a gifted storyteller only becomes more impressive. In many ways, The Magicians can be seen as a character study of Quentin and Quentin as a young man who is ultimately unsatisfied with his life. The charm of Brakebills eventually wears off and he wishes to be someplace else, he yearns for romantic companionship, but once he and Alice get together, he begins to resent her. Even when he finally achieves a lifelong dream of visiting Fillory, Quentin is unpleasant and dissatisfied with being in the land exhibiting bouts of anger and depression.
The ending itself is relatively ambiguous, open for interpretation. Many have described fiction and novels in particular as a conversation between artist/writer/creator and his or her reader/consumer. In this case, Grossman’s ending seems the most applicable to that relationship. A colleague at work read the novel and came away with quite different implications from the final scene than I did. We both saw a finality in the ending, but the specificity of that finality was up for contention between us.
The Magicians is an ingeniously detailed novel and Grossman should be highly applauded for the subtle details he laid out throughout the novel. The book received high praise even before it was published, with blurbs from George R.R. Martin, Kelly Link, and Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz among others. Many may find the novel as an attempt at emulating Rowling, C.S. Lewis and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which is unfortunate because Grossman is his own Beast of a writer. The manner in which he acknowledges the writers who inspired him and laid a foundation for magical stories is smart without being mere imitation. His storytelling skills, ability to create narrative drive, and the organic manner in which he fits it all together is a unique and remarkable work of art. This is easily 2009 a top 10 read for me and I can’t recommend it enough.
© 2009 Rob H. Bedford