"Harry Potter for adults."
Nearly every review I read for this novel from Lev Grossman contained this little snippet of laconic summary. And I suppose on the surface, it contains an essence of the book, as though you were trying to convince someone in five words or less why this book is worth reading. But those four words carry so much connotation and weight that they overwhelm the power and artistry of what Grossman accomplishes in this thoughtful (and FUN!) book. Yes, the main character, Quentin Coldwater, receives an invitation to take an entrance exam for Brakebills, the North American school for magic that no one knows anything about. But the similarities end there.
First of all, Brakebills is a university rather than a high school, so the characters are older and thus offer a different dynamic than those of Harry Potter and friends. The students at Brakebills are young adults, arriving with personalities already mostly formed, whereas Harry and friends are shaped by Hogwarts. And, again, the characters in The Magicians are young adults on the verge of going out into the world and being responsible for themselves. Like college students everywhere, they are at least as interested in alcohol and sex as they are in their studies. And whereas Harry Potter takes seven increasingly large novels to even get out of Hogwarts, Quentin graduates from Brakebills' five-year program in half the novel.
This is because Grossman isn't telling a parable to children, he is asking a somewhat more meaningful question about how a world of magic would interact with the mundane world we live in. Harry Potter's mundane world is populated by single-dimensional symbols, people who are flattened because they know nothing about magic. Quentin's "real" world is Brooklyn, and the people he knows in it are multi-dimensional and at times inscrutable, just as the people who populate the readers' lives are.
Digging deeper, Quentin is also a far more complex character than Harry Potter. In fact, Quentin is not a very sympathetic character at all: he is dour and prickly, a far more realistic representation of teenaged boys than anything Harry Potter has to offer. The decisions Quentin sometimes makes are self-destructive and impossible to predict, much like those we ourselves make as we are trying to make our way into the "real" world. It just happens that Quentin's real world includes magic and not only does he have to deal with the politics of entry into adult life, he also has to deal with the politics of a world he did not believe existed and for which very people can offer him reasonable guidance. Grossman knows, as Quentin finds out, that college is just made to give its attendees the skill sets to succeed in the adult world, but how we fare depends almost solely on how well we use those acquired skills.
But Grossman doesn't rely on the clichés of Hogwarts alone as a starting point for his own work. Drifting through the first half of The Magicians is Fillory, a Narnia-surrogate that Quentin uses as a touchstone for what he expects of magic and also as an escape as he comes to grips with his mistakes and failures in the real world. Grossman's novels-within-the-novel are well-developed, including the story of the author and the children who supposedly visited him to tell their stories of the magical land of Fillory, hidden in a grandfather clock in their estate in the Cornish countryside. And soon after Quentin graduates from Brakebills, he discovers that Fillory isn't a fantasy—it's a real place that even most magicians didn't expect to exist—and he and his clique of fellow magician graduates, bored with the ease of the magic life in the mundane world, make plans to visit it. And what they find there, while somewhat similar to what they read about as children, turns out to be far more complex than the simple childish storytelling of children's books could possibly convey.
The power of The Magicians lay in its reality, a generally unspoken truth about the best fantasy novels. The fun of the Harry Potter and Narnia books lays in their escapism, in the underlying belief that everything is going to turn out well at the end. But there are no such assurances in The Magicians, as the characters' decisions have real effects on them and their lives. And being young adults, they don't always make the best decisions. Yes, magic pervades everything in the novels, but Grossman, and by extension his characters, still have to deal with it like real people: making and testing assumptions and dealing with the repercussions. And those friends are diverse, resembling more the wide lifestyles represented in The Breakfast Club than the surface differences in those that attend Hogwarts.
This makes The Magicians a much more compelling coming of age story, refusing to brighten the maturing process into a fairy tale. When Quentin and his friends fail, people can be hurt (and often are). Potentially, this kind of story could end up depressing, but it is actually worlds of fun. Life at Brakebills isn't that of a monastery—studying magic requires outrageous and sometimes silly activity. Quentin provides a wonderful voice to describe all this: cynical and unhappy but desperate to believe in something other than the slow death he sees in a mundane life. Grossman's language and style are engrossing, pulling the reader in as much by their exuberance about the story as by the events they describe. I really never did want to put The Magicians down until I had finished the last word.
If there is a weakness in the novel, it lies in its coda, the story of Quentin's life after he returns from Fillory. Disgusted with the magical life, he decides to go full-bore in the opposite direction, to become fully mundane and live a normal life. Except Quentin is merely deluding himself—he finds himself a high-priced consultant at a powerful company, a job for which he has absolutely no training, since Brakebills doesn't teach accounting and other mundane skills. His magical background gives him the best life most mundane people can imagine, and he has done nothing to earn it, flying the face of his decision to escape the effects of magic. His subconscious appears to be attempting to deal with the hypocrisy while he consciously avoids it himself, whiling away his hours in a worse mundane death than the one he envisioned in his youth—he does nothing important and any self-worth he might've gained during his magical escapades is slowly draining away. But in the final few pages, magic comes forth again to save him, and Quentin blithely accepts his savior. In one sense, if The Magicians is about how real people would deal with magic, Quentin's running away to magic at the end can be seen as a typical response: everyone, magical or otherwise, looks for the easiest way through. But part of what has made Grossman's story so compelling is the constant reminder that nothing comes without a price, so Quentin's escape seems to fly in the face of that moral. However, a bigger reality is what drives this authorial choice—it sets us up for sequels to The Magicans.
This book is much more than a more mature version of Harry Potter; it is a thoughtful and sometimes deep examination of the process of emerging into adult life with the trappings of a fantasy novel. I have seen this book appear on lists of books for kids who are ready for something after Harry Potter. I can see its inclusion in such lists, but you best be sure of the kids. There are moments in The Magicians that are depressing, not just sad. And there is sex and hardship and death, all components of the real world. I know some teenagers who could handle The Magicians, but they are the exception. If they are in high school still thinking fondly of Rowling and Potter, then this book might be good for them. And it's definitely the kind of book that thoughtful readers of fantasy will appreciate. And to be clear, again, if I have given the impression that this is all gothy emo stuff; it's not—this book is provocative and thoughtful and downright fun. (Just a note—I am more than halfway through the sequel, The Magician King, and I can forgive the wimpy conclusion to The Magicians, if only because it allows this other to be written. Thanks, Eric, for giving me both of them for my birthday!)