The Magicians is the first in an adult fantasy trilogy by Lev Grossman that has been making some serious waves. Again, I’m late to the game but I prefer to wait until I can read all three in a series back to back. Are you an adult who secretly (or openly) loves Harry Potter? Did you read The Chronicles of Narnia over and over and over as a kid? Was Tolkien practically a family name? If so, get ready for a very adult Hogwarts-type college and a ruthless version of Narnia with this New York Times bestseller. Plume | May 25, 2010 | Paperback | 402 pp
The story begins with Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant high school senior who is taking interviews from various ivy league scouts along with his two best friends – also with brilliant minds. Quentin is an odd character who feels a bit bored with life in general. He and his best friend were obsessed with the Fillory book series when they were children, a series that mimics the Narnia books of our world. Though nearly an adult, he never was able to let his hopes for Fillory go and he was always waiting for something magical to happen. When it didn’t, and life started to pass him by, even the prospect of an ivy league acceptance seemed dull – anticipated – another step toward the inevitable doldrums of an average life.
But then – when the administrator giving the interview for an ivy league school is found dead by Quentin and his best friend James, they find two packets on his desk – one bearing Quentin’s name and one with James’. Not wanting to be presumptuous, James leaves his packet behind but Quentin takes the one with his name. Walking home by himself, he opens it and catches the word ‘Fillory’ before a small note from within flies away in the wind. He chases it through a garden, following it further and further until he winds up somewhere … otherworldly.
Moments ago he had been out in the cold early winter weather and suddenly the warmth of a late summer sun was shining down upon him. Gothic stone buildings, a beautiful lawn, fountains, and endless manicured hedges dotted the landscape. He was definitely not in New York City anymore. His first thought was that he was suddenly in Fillory – it was real. But that wasn’t the case.
Nevertheless, he was in a land of magic. Quentin had been purposefully led by magical means to Brakebills, a secret academy for the art of magic hidden in upstate New York through various means of magical spells. Only those who are allowed to attend can find their way to Brakebills. But first, he must pass the admittance exam – only twenty students per class are accepted. Out of the hundred test-takers that day, only he and one other passed. The others were sent home – their memories of the day removed.
It might not have been Fillory, but it was enough. Quentin was sold. He accepted the slot and began a rigorous education in magic. It wasn’t easy and the craft didn’t come naturally to Quentin, but he did well enough. Toward the end of his matriculation, Quentin began to feel the same emptiness coming upon him once more. Was this it? After graduation, what would he do next?
“He wasn’t surprised. He was used to this anticlimactic feeling, where by the time you’ve done all the work to get something you don’t even want it anymore.”
But that wasn’t it. Months after graduation, a secret that had been hidden for decades is revealed. Fillory IS real, and he and his friends found their way in.
While reading The Magicians, I admittedly (don’t laugh!) wondered if this Fillory series was real. Quentin mentions the Narnia series, the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings series – so it made sense that this Fillory series would be real, right? And then I thought – how did I miss these books in my youth? Am I the only one who doesn’t know about these books? A quick Google search will lead you to this page, but it’s all for show. The series is sadly not real and anything you might read on its fictional author (Christopher Plover) is a marketing tool created by Grossman. Clever, clever.
Reading further along, The Magicians and its fictional world of Fillory is an obvious homage to Narnia. In this familiar series, the four Chatwin siblings enter the magical world of Fillory through a grandfather clock, just as the four Pevensies entered Narnia through a wardrobe. In Narnia, the world was to be ruled by two ‘daughters of Eve’ and two ‘sons of Adam’ while Fillory was to be ruled by two human queens and two human kings from earth – the slight difference being the obvious elimination of Christianity – or religion in general, although it is a hotly debated topic therein. In Fillory, there is the all wise and powerful ram instead of Narnia’s Aslan the lion.
The first two-thirds of The Magicians is dominated by Quentin’s time at Brakebills. And it’s awesome. This IS Hogwarts for college students, a version for adults. There’s alcohol, drugs, lewdness, sex, and completely inappropriate magic. There’s also a terrifying beast who makes an appearance – something much more chilling than Voldemort. It eats people alive.
“A magician is strong because he feels pain. He feels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it. Or what did you think that stuff in your chest was? A magician is strong because he hurts more than others. His wound is his strength.”
Quentin doesn’t discover Fillory until nearly the end but don’t consider this a spoiler because this revelation is already on the back of the book – the reader knows it’s coming. What makes this book so utterly fascinating is that we watch (jealously) as Quentin enters the world of Fillory expecting it to be exactly like it is depicted in the books – quests to be accomplished, glory to be gained, trophies and thrones to be won! We all read the Narnia series – it seemed so easy. But what was missing from those books is the actual bloodshed, the debilitating fear just before battle, and what it would really feel like to kill someone. Well, these same things were missing from the Fillory series, and this is what Quentin painfully discovers. He’s like a child who suddenly realizes that fairy tales are not at all accurate – things would not be as simple as depicted in a book – the ugliness of war, danger, and death were things he didn’t sign up for. He reminded me of Paul in All Quiet on the Western Front who went back home while on leave and gave hell to his former teacher, the one who got them all to enlist through emboldening speeches of war and glory. War, they both found, was not at all savory.
“He wasn’t in a safe little story where wrongs were automatically righted; he was still in the real world, where bad bitter things happened for no reason, and people paid for things that weren’t their fault.”
I also enjoyed the fact that Quentin is not perfect. He’s not the ‘fated’ protagonist who is anticipated to become some great, all-powerful magician. There’s no scar on his forehead, no horrifying back story to rise above. He has to work at the art of magic and he has to work hard to keep up with the others. There’s nothing special about him compared to his Brakebills peers, aside from being bumped up a level because of his nerdy-head-in-the-books attitude, and he has some serious character flaws. Never being satisfied is one of them – pushing people away is another.
For adults who are fans of J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, and Tolkien – this is a dream book. Although it is certainly not recommended to young adults, it would be suitable for older, more mature young adults. The writing style is a bit dry, but there is much to keep the imagination busy which trumps any lack of purple prose.
All three books in The Magician series are out, and I am throwing myself into the second book straight away. I am delightfully obsessed!
by Lev Grossman