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A Taste of Things to Come: “The Girl in the Mirror” by Lev Grossman

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there were a great many readers eagerly awaiting the sequel to Lev Grossman’s bestselling novels The Magicians and The Magician King. The weeks became months, and the months became years, and still no third book appeared. The readers grumbled and griped, and finally settled down in a sullen sort of silence. “Such is the plight of the fantasy reader,” the wiser ones would say. “Look at Lynch. Look at Martin. It’ll be done when it’s done. Calm down already. Don’t make me paraphrase that Neil Gaiman thing at you.”

But then, eighteen months into The Wait, a message appeared. Grossman fans blearily looked up from their umpteenth reread of The Magicians. Noting the date, some of them muttered: “Really, people. It hasn’t even been two years. Bringing Martin and Lynch into this conversation was maybe pushing it a little, don’t you think?” To which the more bitter ones replied: “Would you look at who wrote the damned message already?”

For yes, it was George R.R. Martin who, while announcing Dangerous Women on his famed Not a Blog, heralded the new Lev Grossman story “The Girl in the Mirror” (excerpt here). The sizable contingent of Grossman fans who also hoped that Martin would deliver his next novel sooner rather than later groaned. (It is said that, if you hold a copy of the Game of Thrones DVD set to your ear, you can still hear faint whispers of “Oh man, Martin isn’t writing what he’s supposed to be writing again.”) Until, that was, they all noticed the paragraph below the new anthology’s Table of Contents, which described the new story as a “tale of life at Brakebills.” And there was much rejoicing.

So. All kidding aside, I was very excited to get something new to read in the Magicians universe. (And yes, I know it’s not the first new story since The Magician King—for one, there was another story recently in Shawn Speakman’s Unfettered anthology.) “The Girl in the Mirror” is not quite the long(ish)-awaited third novel—it’s a taster more than a full meal, and so not nearly as satisfying—but it’s a fun story and a welcome addition to the series.

And yes, “The Girl in the Mirror” is indeed set at Brakebills, the magical college we all know and love from the first two novels. It’s very much a “slice of life” story, reminiscent of some of my favorite chapters in The Magicians, in which Grossman indulges in descriptions of life at a magical university—a more grown-up and less emotionally stable version of Hogwarts, basically.

The students at Brakebills are highly intelligent, free of parental supervision (often for the first time), and in the process of discovering the true extent of their magical powers. You can imagine the fireworks when these volatile personalities spend entire semesters together.

Or as our narrator Plum describes it:

Brakebills was an extremely secret and highly exclusive institution—as the only accredited college for magic on the North American continent, it had a very large applicant pool to draw from, and it drank that pool dry. Though, technically, nobody actually applied there: Fogg simply skimmed the cream of eligible high school seniors, the cream of the cream really— the outliers, the extreme cases of precocious genius and obsessive motivation, who had the brains and the high pain tolerance necessary to cope with the intellectual and physical rigors that the study of magic would demand from them.

Needless to say, that meant that the Brakebills student body was quite the psychological menagerie. Carrying that much onboard cognitive processing power had a way of distorting your personality. Moreover, in order to actually want to work that hard, you had to be at least a little bit fucked up.

Case in point, our narrator Plum. She’s, in a sense, the standard Brakebills student: a hyper-precocious teenager with a dark twist in her personality (in this case, some as-yet undefined horror in her past) and a desire to twist the world to her whim, as all good magicians must. Plum is also the “unelected but undisputed” leader of the League, a shadowy group of female students who hatch plans during illicit post-curfew meetings but who, aside from Plum herself, may not be aware there is such a thing as the League. It’s something Plum came up with after reading a P.G. Wodehouse story, but she’s fairly sure there must have been a League of some sort at one point in Brakebills’ past, so, well, why not?

“The Girl in the Mirror” follows one of the League’s (read: one of Plum’s) schemes, a revenge prank pulled on another student who has committed an unforgivable crime: short-pouring the nightly glasses of wine the older students get with dinner. This short-pouring will, as far as Plum is concerned, not stand. The complex prank she gets the League to go along with involves lots of magic (of course) and leads Plum, who will play a major role in the forthcoming third novel The Magician’s Land, deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole. It also connects her back to characters you’ll remember from the first two books, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t go into further details about that here.

My favorite aspect of the story is the close-up look at life in Brakebills. In just a few dozen pages, Grossman establishes the same atmosphere he created in The Magicians: the life of a bunch of idiosyncratic personalities with too much time and power on their hands. It somehow makes me hanker for the time when I loved reading children’s books set in boarding schools, with their petty rivalries and post-curfew escapades. The reason for the prank, and the prank itself, are perfect examples of the “privileged kids who are unable to be happy about anything” pattern running through to the two novels, but at the same time they also evoke those innocent Enid Blyton-style plots.

However, there are many more things to love here for fans of the series. There’s a Being John Malkovich-like portal. There’s a look at the remarkably Unseen University-like book collection in the Brakebills library (sadly no orangutan-Librarian though). There’s a lot of snarky third person limited subjective narration by Plum, a character who’s just as smart as, but possibly even more screwed up than, Quentin and Julia. There are loving descriptions of the nightly formal dinners enjoyed by Brakebills students, including tables that randomly and autonomously determine new seating arrangements every day—sort of like the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter, but with added social anxiety.

There are, in short, many goodies to be found in “The Girl in the Mirror” for fans of The Magicians and The Magician King. It’s a typical Magicians story, hiding a lot of emotional trauma under its cheerful veneer of fantasy references and adolescent hijinks. The fact that it also serves as a perfectly good teaser for the forthcoming third novel, with the new point-of-view character and her very promising voice and complexity front and center, is icing on the cake. At dinner, the students at Brakebills would maybe call it an intriguing amuse-bouche, and clamor politely for the main course.

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. You can find him on Twitter, and his website is Far Beyond Reality.


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