Book Review – The Magicians

Based on the first book of the Magicians trilogy alone, it’s unclear as to what exactly the arc of the story will be – is this series about its main character, Quentin, struggling to find happiness? Is it about whether magic can be good or if it’s only an expression of unhappiness?

I think one of the biggest strengths of this first book, though, is that it doesn’t just feel like one small piece of a greater whole; it’s fairly self-contained. All the major bits of foreshadowing pay off by the end, and everything is so perfectly structured. As an example, the story of Emily Greenstreet we hear early on serves three purposes: it gives us important exposition about two major characters’ pasts, it establishes the concept of the niffin, and it directly foreshadows a connection Quentin is able to make near the end of the book. The book is so ruthlessly, efficiently structured, with so many mysteries introduced and resolved, that I’m impressed Grossman was even brave enough to take a stab at writing two more books. But we’ll get to those when we get to those.

It’s beyond redundant to compare these books to the Harry Potter or Narnia books, but it’s also impossible not to, because they’re very aware that those books exist, and they make efforts to both channel the influences and subvert them. There are layers of fantasy to the multiverse of The Magicians – first there’s the ‘real world’ fantasy of Brakebills, which obviously echoes Hogwarts from Harry Potter, and deeper in, there’s the even more fantastical parallel universe of Fillory, which obviously echoes Narnia. This is a series where the protagonist longs to be like the protagonists of those books, children whose mundane lives are miraculously upended by the exciting new worlds they discover. It’s clear from the first chapter that this book is going to comment on that desire, not simply fulfill it and tell another story in the same vein.

Grossman is intent on subverting that sense of whimsy that series like Harry Potter and Narnia provide, which would lead you to think this world isn’t fun at all. But that’s not quite true, either; Grossman pulls off an admirable balancing act where he’s able to conjure just enough wonder and magic that readers are entertained and want to know more about the world, but at the same time undercut that wonder with many suggestions that it’s not quite right. Seeing Quentin drinking and playing Quidditch-esque games with his friends at Brakebills is fun, and you recognize the familiar college-y aspects, but it’s clear that not everything is unambiguously whimsical and carefree. The presence of alcohol alone indicates that this isn’t the same as Harry Potter and Narnia, and eventually you kind of think, Wow, these characters get drunk a lot, don’t they?

And while the Harry Potter books mostly ignore the fact that these teachers are probably violating child endangerment laws with stuff like the Triwizard Tournament, these books are much more upfront about how borderline-abusive the staff is. A trip the students take to Antarctica is mostly depressing. There’s darkness in Harry Potter, of course, but most of the sadness in those books is caused by something concrete and exciting: tragic backstories, filled with lost loves and painful deaths. The characters of The Magicians are certainly mostly unhappy, but aside from Alice’s grief over a painful loss, most of the unhappiness is caused by something else, some nebulous, great ennui. It’s greatest with Quentin, but it’s there with his friends, too. Since I haven’t read the later books yet, I can’t tell exactly where this is going to go – is all this a metaphor for mental illness and depression, or is it simply an expression of the occasional sense of unmotivated sadness we all have, the sense that there has to be something more?

I love that the book actually uses magic to ponder the question of happiness and its attainability. Other books about magic don’t really explore why it exists in the context of the story, and what philosophical and ethical questions it poses. There are tidbits of that in Harry Potter, essentially the same light vs. dark concept as the Force in Star Wars, but The Magicians seems intent on really exploring that philosophical territory. At one point in the story, Dean Fogg raises the fascinating possibility that magic is a necessity to these people because they can’t bear to see the world as it is without it.

This stuff I’ve been writing about is almost entirely abstract, and it’s a testament to Grossman’s writing that he’s able to ground it in a fascinating concrete world. Because aside from all of these questions, there are drunk talking bears, a romantic subplot that kicks off when two 20-year-olds turn into arctic foxes and have sex in fox form, memory spells a la “Obliviate” from Harry Potter, godly rams buried deep underground, evil ferrets getting their throats stomped in, and a creepy monster antagonist in the form of a small British man with a branch perpetually obscuring his face. The co-opting of the fantasy genre for genre subversion and psychological probing is what’s most interesting about this book, but that couldn’t exist without indulging in the fun elements of fantasy itself. Lev Grossman successfully has it both ways, and I can’t wait to see how that continues in the next book.

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