Lev Grossman’s book The Magicians is the first fantasy novel I have read in many years. With the exception of a few young adult fantasy series — namely Harry Potter, which I have been obsessed with for fifteen years — I have learned that fantasy is not a genre that I particularly enjoy. When talking with my son (a devoted fantasy fan, as most teenage boys seem to be) I was forced to come up with a reason for why I shy away from fantasy novels. After some reflection I determined that fantasy novels are often too much about place and the novel’s character development, plot pacing, and coherency all suffer for it.
However, when I read that Grossman’s series was considered “Harry Potter for adults” I knew I had to set aside my biases and give it a try. I really, really wanted to like this book. I wanted to to discover a series of books that I could dive into and anxiously await the next installment. Sadly that did not happen with The Magicians.
While I did not love the book, I did like the book. Grossman is a wonderful writer who really does have a wonderful idea — what would a group of disaffected, millennial teenagers who learn that they are capable of magic do? how would they be handle their power? what would they make of their newly enchanted lives?
The Magicians centers around a group of students who are selected to attend a prestigious college for the study of magic. The characters, who are all seventeen at the start of the novel’s action, are all living in a post-Harry Potter world (and a post Chronicles of Narnia, and post-Lord of the Rings). Their understanding of magic is profoundly affected by their familiarity with these books. Indeed, Grossman does not shy away from mentioning these books at all, rather he embraces that they now have established a canon of fantasy novels for young adults and weaves elements of all of those stories into his book (he even comes right out and references Quidditch, Middle-Earth, Hermione Granger, and the Narnia fauns, among others.) Somehow familiarity with these stories seem to have hardened the main characters slightly against the wonder of their new circumstances. Indeed, the story itself never seems to move out from under its influences and always feels like it exists in their shadow.
Grossman does create a really enjoyable parallel world from the students to live in and crafts a very beautiful version of magic for them. Rather than being something the the teens simply start doing, magic in this novel is a hard-earned, much-studied discipline that only the very elite are capable of. “Magic was like a language…treated as an orderly system but in reality it was complex, chaotic, and organic. There were as many special cases, one time variations as there were rules; filled with exceptions, asterisks, and footnotes.” Much of the first half of the book focuses on their very challenging education, their learning of the magical languages of the world.
It is after graduation that the students seem to develop a malaise that is not unlike their non-magical peers: too much drinking, entering into self-destructive relationships, and devoting too much of their time searching for ways to be entertained. Together too much they press the boundaries of their friendship, “Fighting was like using magic. You said the words and they altered the universe. Merely by speaking you could create damage and pain, cause tears to fall, drive people away, make yourself feel better but make your life worse.” It is here that the book really started to lose me. I felt consistently irritated that despite being able to do magic and being very, very rich as a result of that, the characters can find nothing worthwhile to do with themselves. For a long while, the story seems to be more about the post-college, adolescent struggles of this group rather than a fantasy story about wizards. In my opinion, if you cannot find a way to make your life entertaining and fulfilling when you are a extremely wealthy wizard, you really cannot be trying very hard.
Looking for a bit of fun and a way out of the depression they all seem to be sinking under, the group undertakes a risky time and dimension traveling adventure that turns out to be all too real. The story moves in fits and starts at this point in the novel: at times very exciting and other times a bit marred down in the he-said, she-said theatrics that dominated their time in college. A long journey is begun and a battle for their lives ensues. In the end only some of the characters survive and the rest are left to journey back home or remain on their own in this parallel world.
While his story-line in the final chapters does start to pick up pace and really embrace its fantasy novel roots — magical beasts, epic battles, daring quests — the novel’s ending feels as if it was changed several times by the author. Just when you think the first novel is ending, Grossman dashes off a few half-hearted lines that leap months into the future and introduce bizarrely complicated plot twists that really might have been better for the start of the second book.
While the book is readable and even entertaining it is not a modern classic, at least not standing on its own. It is possible that the series, when complete, will really be something amazing (which does happen with long series’ from time to time: the first book bobbles a bit but the rest of the books buoy it back up).