The Magicians by Lev Grossman

You’re supposed to be tight with children’s fantasy novels in order to truly appreciate the new book, The Magicians. Maybe, but I’ve discovered that it isn’t necessary in order to enjoy it.

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By the end of this book, at least one tree goes up in a fireball.

You see, what we have here is half Harry Potter, half Narnia, with plenty of hard alcohol.

17-year-old Quentin Coldwater has a fixation on two things: magic tricks and the children’s fantasy novels, “Fillory and Further.” Each of those is about to become a lot more real.

His plans to enter Princeton go awry when he arrives for the interview to find the aged interviewer dead. One of the paramedics on the scene, who is off-puttingly cheerful, hands him a book and a note on the sly. This note later flies off on a gust of wind, and Quentin follows it to suddenly find himself on the summery campus of Brakebills magic school. There, in a crowd of other overachieving strangers his age, he takes an entrance exam and passes it. Fogg, the Dean of Brakebills, tells him about the kind of operation they’re running, and presents Quentin with a choice: enroll and learn magic or go back to Brooklyn.

Quentin of course takes the red pill. And off the story goes as it follows him through his undergraduate studies in sorcery and the bizarre adventure he and several classmates embark on afterward.

Lev Grossman is imaginative in the classic sense, appealing to the kid in you that genuinely enjoyed J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis. But surrounding the wondrous concept of magic in this novel is a very interesting ennui. Learning sorcery turns out to be mind-numbingly dull for the students, for each spell has to be conjugated (like verb tenses in language) for everything from the spellcaster’s gender and birthsign to the phase and position of the moon. There are hundreds of conjugations just for a spell that allows its caster to hammer in a nail straight in a single shot.

And more profoundly, nobody seems very happy. Becoming an accomplished and powerful magician is no guarantee of the good life. If anything, it condemns the mage to the opposite. Quentin and the other aimless graduates fall on alcoholism and sleeping around and quite frankly become toxic assholes. This is a deliberate point made in the book, and numerous times the question is raised (and never satisfactorily answered) as to why magic schools even exist. Any global good produced in its spellcasting alumni is marginal, and it’s very troubling to some of the characters that such young people would be cultivated to wield so much power that they’re not ready to have.

So this sort of de-romanticizing of magic makes the novel feel surprisingly realistic. Couple that with the “Fillory” books-within-a-book, which add this layer of “that’s the fantasy, this is the reality” verisimilitude. I’ve never encountered a novel quite like this one, nor seen its unique and disturbing concept of magic before.

One of the professors explains magic by using the famous anecdote of philosopher Bertrand Russell, who was approached by an interesting lady after he gave a lecture. She argued to him that the world actually stood on the back of a giant turtle. Russell, amused, asked then what the turtle was standing on, to which the lady replied it was another turtle. What was that turtle standing on then, asked Russell, and the lady said, “It’s turtles all the way down.” The magic Professor had this to say about the story:

‘The woman was wrong about the world, of course, but she would have been quite right if she’d been talking about magic. Great mages have wasted their lives trying to get at the root of magic. It is a futile pursuit, not much fun and occasionally quite hazardous. Because the farther down you go, the bigger and scalier the turtles get, with sharper beaks. Until they eventually start looking less like turtles and more like dragons.’

Grossman sometimes gets in the way of his own very good book; someone ought to have trim the fat off his prose and taken a look at his frequently weird modifiers that don’t quite work. There’s another even larger character issue that emerges toward the middle of the novel (something I’m compelled to explain later, as it applies to a Great Literary Theory of mine), but The Magicians is a fun novel even for someone like myself who’s only sampled the fantasy genre. You keep reading to watch the turtles become dragons.

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