The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, 416 pp, RL: TEEN

The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman came out in 2009. You may have heard of it. It's been touted as "Harry Potter for adults" and Brakebills College shares some definite echoes of Hogwarts. But, The Magicians really owes more of a debt to The Chronicles of Narnia in terms of the underlying fantasy that drives this story. I bought The Magicians when it came out because I was intrigued by the comparisons and I thought it might be a good transition from YA (young adult) to adult books for my daughter, who was sixteen at the time. She read it and the sequel and, when asked the differences between these adult books and YA/kid's books she summed it up by saying, "They drink a lot and have some sex." Having read The Magicians (and, as Lisa Brown humorously sums it up in her 3 Panel Review at the bottom of the page) I'd say that's pretty accurate, in a very general way. However, as someone who has read a handful of adult books in the last five years because all I read anymore is kid's and YA titles, I read The Magicians hoping understand what makes an adult book different from a YA book, especially when the main characters are teenagers. And, while there is a lot of drinking, a minimal amount of sex and swearing, the main difference between The Magicians and a YA book is the profound sense of sadness and futility experienced by the main character Quentin Coldwater by the time he graduates from Brakebills College and realizes the nagging, aching wish that he has carried with him from childhood. There is a depth to Quentin's emotions and internal dialogue that you just don't find in YA books.

I have been reading a lot of fantasy lately that involves unseen worlds and one thing I have noticed above all else is that the characters rarely express amazement or even comment when they slip into these worlds for the first time. Thinking about The Magicians and Quentin's first visit to Brakebills, I think I understand this phenomena. Quentein, like most of us, has grown up with in a world that holds shelves and shelves full of books where unseen worlds are visited. In The Magicians, Quentin's childhood fascination that has carried into his adolescence centers on the quintet of books known as "Fillory and Further" by the American expat living in Cornwall, Christopher Plover, published in the 1930s. Like the Pevensies and Narnia, Plover's books are populated by the Chatwin children who pair up in varying combinations for adventures in the series. The Magicians even has a somewhat childishly drawn map of Fillory covering the endpapers. Quentin has read these books so many times, pored over them and pondered them, that, when he experiences the magic of an unseen world for the first time it is not the jolt to his senses one might expect. The start of The Magicians finds seventeen-year-old New Yorker Quentin, along with the charming James and his girlfriend, the "pale, freckled, dreamy Julia, who played oboe and knew more physics than he did [and] was never going to sleep with" Quentin, heading to a college interview with a Princeton alum. As they walk, Quentin ponders his unhappiness, knowing that the consolation he finds in the Fillory books is also probably the reason Julia will never sleep with him, and wonders if Princeton will reveal his "real life" to him. Quentin, as all fantasy heroes must, is sure that his real life has been "mislaid through some clerical error by the cosmic bureaucracy. This couldn't be it. It had been diverted somewhere else, to somebody else." Quentin and James arrive at the home of their interviewer and find him deceased. After a slightly unsettling conversation with a pretty, blond paramedic, Quentin and James leave with manilla envelopes bearing their names, thrust upon them by the blond. Walking home on his own, Quentin opens the envelope and finds it holds a much-used notebook. When he opens it, he finds "The Magicians: Book Six of Fillory and Further" handwritten on the first page. The ink has gone brown with age. There is no known sixth Fillory book. But, before he can get even nearly as excited as I would be if I found Harry Potter VIII, a folded piece of paper slips out of the notebook and is carried forward by the wind. Quentin runs after it as it is whipped through a narrow, triangular shaped community garden. As Quentin chases the paper toward the increasingly narrow point of the triangle, he slowly realizes he is not in the city anymore. Nauseous and sweaty, he finds himself at the edge of a wide lawn, a large stone house in the distance, the angle of the sun and season of the year all wrong. From fifty feet away, a tall, skinny teenager is watching him, smoking a cigarette.

Quentin heads into the mansion, which he learns is Brakebills, by way of a hedge maze, where he finds himself among other kids his age about to take an examination. Quentin thinks he catches a glimpse of Julia in the crowd. Aside from calculus and a few other odd questions, Quentin is asked to take a passage from The Tempest, make up a fake language and translate the passage into this fake language. The he is asked questions about the grammar and orthography of this made-up language as well as questions about the geography and society of the made-up culture that speaks this language. Then, he had to "translate the original passage from the fake language back into English, paying particular attention to any resulting distortions in grammar, word choice, and meaning." The study and practice of magic at Brakebills proves to be every bit as (if not more) esoteric and intensely academic over the course of the book, which covers the five years that it takes to matriculate. This contrasts with what the fantasy novels usually portray, and Quentin reflects on this book magic that,

never seemed especially hard to do. There were lots of furrowed brows and thick books and long white beards and whatnot, but when it came right down to it, you memorized the incantation - or you just read it off the page, if that was too much trouble - you collected the herbs, waved the wand, rubbed the lamp, mixed the potion, said the words-and just like that the forces of the beyond did your bidding. It was like making salad dressing or driving stick or assembling Ikea furniture -just another skill you could learn . . . As much as it was like anything, magic was like a language. And like a language, textbooks and teachers treated it as an orderly system for the purposes of teaching it, but in reality it was complex and chaotic and organic. It obeyed rules only to the extent that it felt like it, and there was almost as many special cases and one-time variations as there were rules. These Exceptions were indicated  by rows of asterisks and daggers and other more obscure typographical fauna which invited the reader to peruse the many footnotes that cluttered up the margins of magical reference books like Talmudic commentary.

The academics and social aspects of Brakebills take up three quarters of The Magicians. Quentin makes a few friends and spends his first year feeling like a tourist who will be returning home eventually. At the start of the third year, the students are divided into groups based on the type of magic they express an aptitude for. Quentin's skills are not entirely classifiable, but he ends up being placed with the Physical Kids, a small group that consists of three older students and Alice, a quiet, brilliant girl with an amazing backstory, in Quentin's year. Once sorted, each group of students had their own house (like French House, German House, Rainbow House on typical college campuses) and the new inductees, of course, are hazed. Quentin and Alice find themselves standing in front of the door to the white Victorian Physical House, unable to get the door open, knowing there are people inside. After hours of pondering, waiting, trying, Quentin convinces Alice to perform a spell that, with the positioning of her arms and a few other things, becomes the equivalent of a giant magnifying glass focusing the rays of the setting sun on the front door. As they enter through the burned door, they are welcomed by Janet, Eliot and Josh. Dinner is cooking and they all want to share the story of how they made it inside on their first day ("It used to be you could say 'friend' in Elvish and it would let you in," Josh said. "Now too many people have read Tolkien.") and bottles of wine are opened. Another part of the academics at Brakebills that fascinated me is the mysterious Fourth Year, of which only these details are known:

every year in September half the Fourth Years swiftly and silently disappeared from the House overnight. No one discussed their absence. The vanished Fourth Years reappeared at the end of December looking thin and drawn and generally chewed over, to no particular comment - it was considered fatally bad form to say anything about it. They quietly mixed back into the general Brakebills population, and that was that. The rest of the Fourth Years vanished in January and came back at the end of April. 

These chapters of the book are fascinating, mature in tone and thought - you can tell that the students themselves are undergoing an intense maturation process and shift in perspective in ways that I never felt in Rowling's books, despite the copious number of pages and plot threads she had to accomplish this. However, I think this is more about the nature of writing for children versus adults that a reflection on her skills as a writer. At the end of their time at Brakebills, after they have completed their senior theses, Dean Fogg takes them down under the school to a room that is outside of the Protective Cordon where he bestows a really creepy and cool graduation gift upon them.

The final quarter of the book, Alice and Quentin have graduated, Eliot Janet and Josh already a year into their adult lives. Ensconced in New York City, a wealth of funds (as well as the magical ability to generate funds) at their disposal, they find themselves aimless and untethered. Quentin feels at a loss without any "great evil to be vanquished . . . No one would come right out and say it, but the worldwide magical ecology was suffering from a serious imbalance: too many magicians, not enough monsters." Of course, for those students who had a sense of purpose, it was considered "chic to go undercover, to infiltrate governments and think tanks and NGOs, even the military, in order to get oneself into a position to influence real-world affairs magically from behind the scenes." Alice puts off the "civil service appointment or research apprenticeship that usually ensnared the serious-minded Brakebills students" in order to stay in the city with Quentin. Alice's parents, both magicians, spend their empty days engrossed in ridiculous magical pursuits. An architectural magician, Alice's father changes the decor of their house every few years, the current style echoing an "upper-middle-class Pompeian household, complete with pornographic frescoes. It was obsessively authentic except for the bathrooms - a concession had obviously been granted on that score." Authentic food is served by three-foot tall wooden marionettes, although Alice's father reveals that he had a pizza from Domino's earlier in the day. At this point, The Magicians moves from being Harry Potter for adults to more of a Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis - with magic. Forgive my point of reference, I am a child of the 80s. There is a somber tone throughout the novel, but this portion of the book becomes especially bleak with Quentin making the thoughtless, reckless, irrevocable decision that only a rudderless young adult can. However, it is also at this point in The Magicians that a major plot point mentioned early on reveals itself, catapulting The Magicians truly and completely into the realm of Harry Potter/Narnia for adults. After five years at Brakebills and one or two on their own, the characters are in their early twenties and youth can no longer be an excuse for their decisions and actions. There are one or two truly horrific magical scenes, although the actual graphic violence it brief and not described in depth. It is the intent that is chilling.

In the end, I would have to say that The Magicians is really about the mistakes we make as adults, mistakes that we seem destined to make even if we are handed the keys to a literary magical kingdom we always thought we wanted to inhabit. No matter where we are, we can't escape ourselves seems to be the theme that truly distinguishes and delineates The Magicians from a young adult book. YA books are for emerging adults who are raw, fresh and young enough to still have hope and think they can change themselves and/or the direction of their lives. As Grossman shows us with The Magicians, sometimes we can't.

The sequel...

The Magician King

Julia, the mysterious love interest of the first few pages of The Magicians, makes a haunting appearance midway through the novel, wrecked and nearly insane from her rejection by Brakebills - she was there taking the exam the same day Quentin did. Quentin does his best to help her without betraying the secrets of Brakebills and Julia returns at the end of the novel, a hedge witch. Self-taught and increasingly powerful, The Magician King tells Julia's story from the moment she failed the entrance exam at Brakebills to her personal education and discovery of groups of magicians practicing outside the established world of magic.

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