Not an escapist fantasy: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians must be one of the most reviewed fantasy novels of the last few years. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that the author is a well known writer and book reviewer for Time Magazine. It also doesn’t hurt that the book was very effectively hyped as “Harry Potter with college age students”—after all, anything with Harry Potter on the cover seems to sell like hotcakes. The end result of all of this is that, in addition to fantasy fans, lots of people who don’t regularly read the genre picked up the novel, and many of them had their expectations severely challenged. I hosted a discussion about the novel a few months back, and I was surprised by how extreme people’s opinions were. With its sequel, The Magician King, due out soon, I wanted to revisit the first book, and specifically look at the possible reasons why this turned out to be one of those “love it or hate it” books. Be warned: this post contains major spoilers for The Magicians—but nothing about The Magician King.

You probably already know the basic plot summary for The Magicians. If not, “Harry Potter with college age students” is actually a fairly accurate way to sum up the plot at its most basic level. Quentin Coldwater is a very bright teenager trying to test into a good college, but instead finds himself enrolling in Brakebills, a secret magic college hidden away in upstate New York. Like many teenagers, Quentin is 1) constantly dissatisfied with the world around him, 2) insecure and a bit full of himself at the same time, and 3) quite mopey. A good chunk of the story revolves around Quentin getting used to life as a brilliant and newly independent young man in a college full of other equally brilliant magic users, but there’s a larger plot that’s at first hardly noticeable and gradually becomes more apparent as the novel progresses.

This larger plot is the main reason why I think The Magicians is an interesting read for fantasy fans, because it involves a clever meta-fictional twist. Despite his friends’ teasing, Quentin never outgrew his love for a (fictional) series of five young adult fantasy novels set in Fillory, which has—to put it mildly—a strong resemblance to Narnia. In a hint of the future, a glimpse of a (thus far) unknown sixth novel in the Fillory series quite literally draws Quentin towards Brakebills.

Later on in the novel, we learn that Fillory is actually not fictional at all. It’s a real place, Quentin and company visit it, and it turns out to be very different from the magical realm they expected. In some ways, it’s just as flawed as the real world is. Some of the seemingly infallible characters from the Fillory books turn out to be obnoxious blowhards. What’s more, the “monster” who kills a student during a Brakebills lecture that goes horribly wrong turns out to be one of the Chatwin children who visited Filllory in the books.

So what we have here is a young fantasy fan who suddenly finds himself confronted with the existence of very real magic, a reader of escapist books who becomes aware that the fiction he used as an escape is not fictional at all. While the Harry Potter comparison is obvious (and, again, totally understandable from a marketing perspective), I think it’s also appropriate to compare The Magicians to a more adult version of The Neverending Story—the original novel by Michael Ende, not the horrid film adaptation that ends more or less exactly where the book starts to get interesting. Just like Bastian Balthazar Bux, Quentin must come to terms with the fact that a fantasy that becomes real isn’t as easy to live with as one that remains safely in the realm of fiction.

Lev Grossman is doing more than just telling a story here. Indirectly, he’s having a conversation with fantasy readers about what it’s like to be a fan of stories that involve magic and alternate realities. It’s about escapism. It’s about what it means to be comfortable with something when you know that it’s a dream, a book, a wish, a movie—and then wishing you could forget what you find out when someone lifts the curtain and shows you the reality behind the fantasy. I think one of the reasons some people disliked this book is that it made them uncomfortable, but in a way that’s hard to put your finger on. As entertaining as the book is (and yes, on one level this is also simply a really fun story), underneath the surface it plays with some of the basic suppositions people have about fantasy—and it doesn’t play nice. (That’s also why I think that some people who complained that the magical realm of Fillory isn’t detailed or fleshed out enough, or that it’s too derivative of Narnia, sort of missed the point.)

Grossman also places his narrative squarely in a world where fantasy series like Harry Potter are well known. His characters occasionally show how aware they are that they’re living in something that could be construed as a Potter satire. This is usually done in a clever “look what we have to deal with in reality” way, e.g. when one of them mutters grumpily that he has to get his broom when they’re late for a match of welters, a magical competitive sport like quidditch that has absolutely nothing to do with brooms. It’s funny and a bit gimmicky, but it also highlights again the dissonance between fiction and reality that the more intelligent characters in the novel experience. Josh, who is a bit more like a frat boy, doesn’t seem to be so bothered by all of this, yelling out “let’s get some unicorns up in this piece” when things aren’t exciting enough for him. And of course there are a ton of other allusions to SF and fantasy in the book, as Lev Grossman explained on last month.

I read The Magicians right after Jo Walton‘s excellent Among Others, another recent fantasy novel that’s at the same time a wonderful story and a conversation with genre fans—albeit one with a very different tone. Among Others is an appreciative, even loving, approach to fantasy and SF, whereas The Magicians has a much darker, almost satiric edge. Among Others‘ main character, Mori, is aware that magic is real and is, at the same time, a big fan of real SF and fantasy, but in her world there’s a clear separation between fiction and reality. In The Magicians, Quentin not only learns that magic is real, but also that what he thought of as fiction is real too, and that there are clear differences between the two. Mori escapes into fiction, but Quentin’s escape becomes much less effective when he finds out what the real situation is. Mori’s story is a hopeful one, whereas Quentin gradually loses every illusion he had. Maybe I’m taking the whole meta-fictional thing way too far here, but I kept wondering how Mori would react to reading The Magicians. (I imagine she’d want to bop Quentin on the head for being such a thankless whiner.)

Aside from this meta-fictional gamesmanship, Grossman also doesn’t pull any punches when showing what life may be like for a bunch of magically gifted young adults who are off their parents’ leashes for the first time. Many people have complained about how negative the main characters are, and it’s true: there aren’t many examples here of people using their skills for good, or even just being thankful for their extraordinary gifts. There’s a lot of boredom, disinterest and cynicism. The most talented ones have the blasé attitude of a gifted person who looks down on those who manage to muster some excitement about magic. There are cliques and power circles, and people stuck on the outside. And yes, as on almost any college campus, there’s a good amount of booze and casual sex. This is not a novel to read if you’re looking for faultless, likable characters, and that includes our hero Quentin, who is simply too myopic to see how lucky he is. In the middle of the novel, he sums this up very effectively by thinking “I got my heart’s desire […] and there my troubles began,” but even earlier, well before he finds out about magic and Brakebills, we find out what Quentin’s general attitude is:

I should be happy, Quentin thought. I’m young and alive and healthy. I have good friends. I have two reasonably intact parents — viz., Dad, an editor of medical textbooks, and Mom, a commercial illustrator with ambitions, thwarted, of being a painter. I am a solid member of the middle-middle class. My GPA is a number higher than most people even realize it is possible for a GPA to be.

But walking along Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, in his black overcoat and his gray interview suit, Quentin knew he wasn’t happy. Why not? He had painstakingly assembled all the ingredients of happiness. He had performed all the necessary rituals, spoken the words, lit the candles, made the sacrifices. But happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come. He couldn’t think what else to do.

Pushing things even further, the book also shows what life may be like after graduation from a magical college. Not only is a magical education nothing like what it’s made to look like in fantasy books, but just like with a real life diploma, a piece of paper doesn’t automatically lead to success and happiness. The graduates don’t turn into heroes. Instead, they set up in a bachelor pad in Manhattan and continue to drink like fish and screw around. Or they take one of the do-nothing, high-pay jobs arranged for them by Brakebills, presumably to keep them quietly comfortable so they don’t get bored and go down the Evil Genius path. Or they get banished to the Antarctic branch of the college. When Quentin meets his girlfriend’s parents, Grossman even shows a chilling example of middle-aged graduates. As hilarious as that entire scene is, it also shows two people who have become bitter, a bit unhinged, and obsessed with trivialities. Not much to look forward to, here. Again, it’s no wonder some people were turned off by this relentlessly cynical outlook, especially if they came into it expecting a slightly older Harry Potter.

The Magicians is essentially a dark novel. Go through the list of characters and you’ll find that almost all of them have their dreams and expectations shattered at some point—the ones that actually have the ability and energy to dream, that is. The Magicians is the perfect antithesis of an escapist novel: it pulls the curtain up, reveals that magic is real, and then makes it clear that even young, gifted people often don’t have it in them to use it wisely or even appreciate it. That it does this by using some of the most beloved young adult fantasy fiction as a starting point makes the experience of reading it even more disconcerting. It’s no wonder that this novel got some very extreme reviews from fantasy fans.

I approached The Magicians expecting a gimmicky “adult Harry Potter” story, and was very pleasantly surprised. Yes, it’s a novel about teenagers in a magical college, but it also has some very complex characters, genuinely surprising twists, and a level of depth I didn’t expect in the least. That The Magicians manages to remain highly accessible, readable and entertaining while delivering all of this is simply amazing. The various levels of cynicism in this novel may be hard to cope with for readers expecting a more traditionally escapist fantasy, but if you don’t mind having your expectations challenged, The Magicians delivers a very rewarding reading experience that will remain with you for a long time to come.

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. Many of his reviews can be found at Far Beyond Reality.


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