Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is a tricky book to review, at least in as much as it’s hard to know how much to reveal. One of the things that I have most to say on is something that is based on a turn of events about 2/3rds of the way through. On the other hand it’s mentioned (briefly) on the back cover.
OK so if you consider back cover blurb spoiler then don’t continue reading this review. Otherwise…
The Magicians has been called a grown-up Harry Potter and you can see why – the first section of the book concerns the hero, Quentin Coldwater, being selected for and training at a magical school, Brakebills. However he’s college age not pre-pubescent and the book doesn’t shy away from descriptions of sex, and drug-taking which you wouldn’t find in even the later HP books. Also, whilst graduating from Brakebills takes 5 years (a little less for Quentin as he gets put forward a year) we’re taken through it all in this book rather than the book-per-year of the Potter novels.
Having said that it being a magical school with exams, practical lessons and even a magical sport (Welters) it’s hard not to compare with HP. This is done knowingly and when one of the characters drunkenly refers to Welters as Quidditch and talks about Owl mail you know Grossman’s not unaware of the parallels.
So I think the HP comparisons are superficial and come almost automatically from having the very idea of a school for magic. Magic in this book by the way is another difference from the Potterverse. Performing a spell is a matter of mastering complicated and precise hand movements coupled with particular incantations (in one of several languages) and possibly strange ingredients. It’s also something where the exact manner of casting depends on the conditions – pointing your wand and shouting ‘Expelliamus’ might work in New York on a still day on a Tuesday in June but not on a windy Friday in London in December for example. So whilst it’s not a science, it’s a very finicky art-form that requires lots of practice, hard work and memorising of exceptions.
But the main difference is that because the characters are already more mature it deals with a more psychologically realistic view of the world. What it might feel like to be in this scenario. Not as an exciting schoolboy adventure but as something you’re doing because you can’t really find meaning in normal life. Well that’s true for Quentin any how. The other characters have different motivations and aspirations and distractions.
One of the ways in which Quentin’s inner life is demonstrated is through the Fillory books. These are the series of magical stories that he read as a child about a land called Fillory that a family of English children go to and have various adventures in. Whilst in the world of The Magicians nearly everyone reads the Fillory novels as children, Quentin never grew out of them and will re-read them as a kind of comfort food equivalent.
And it turns out Fillory is real and Quentin and his friends go there.
And it’s this section of the book that gave me most pause for thought. Because Fillory is quite obviously and deliberately a parallel to Narnia and so the time spent there can be read as either a parody, or a fairly scathing critique of those books. I guess it was wondering whether Grossman wanted me to take some kind of a message away about this that gave me some trouble.
In the end what I decided was that he was just taking a kind of Narnia-like world seriously and how that would play out with his characters and his rules about magic and the story he wanted to tell. So I stopped worrying about whether the books I loved as a child were being made fun of[*] and enjoyed the book.
There’s a couple of other sections to the book and an interesting ending that I won’t go into. What I will say is that again I went back and forth between two opinions – that the book was uneven in tone and that was a weakness or that yes it was but because different tones were appropriate to the different sections.
I’ve read other reviews which found Quentin himself too downbeat or melancholic a character. Personally I empathised with his struggles, with life, magic and relationships and it was him (and the other characters) that kept me interested through some of the ups and downs.
Finally all I will say because it’s probably not clear is that I did enjoy this book and will read the sequel (eventually).
8/10 – It’s Magic Harry but not as we know it!