The Magicians, written by Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman, debuted at #9 on the New York Times bestseller list and is currently #21. Although the ending isn’t quite what I would call a cliffhanger since the main loose ends from this book are tied up, it also seems to be leading up to another book. Grossman has confirmed that there will indeed be a sequel in an interview.
Seventeen-year-old Quentin Coldwater is one of the most brilliant students in his high school. In spite of his genius, he is not particularly happy, but he is hoping that college will be just the change he needs. In the meantime, he keeps dreaming of Fillory, a magical land from a series of books written by Christopher Plover. Quentin has read these books several times, knows them inside and out and is quite obsessed with them. He believes that life would be so much better if only it were like the world of Fillory:
In Fillory things mattered in a way they didn’t in this world. In Fillory you felt the appropriate emotions when things happened. Happiness was a real, actual, achievable possibility. It came when you called. Or no, it never left you in the first place. (pp. 7)
Instead, Quentin will have to settle for Princeton, assuming his interview goes well. However, when he arrives for his interview, no one answers the door and he discovers the man he was supposed to speak with is lying on the floor, very dead. He and his friend James call the paramedics, and one of them convinces Quentin to take an envelope with his name on it from a table. When Quentin leaves and opens the envelope, he finds the first page is entitled The Magicians, Book Six of Fillory and Further. Before he can read any more, a gust of wind blows the page from his hand. Quentin chases after it and suddenly finds he is somewhere else.
“Somewhere else” is not Fillory as Quentin first hoped but actually upstate New York. Soon Quentin is ushered into a room with several other people taking the strangest entrance exam he has ever seen – the words disappear, sometimes even in the middle of a question. He makes it through all the entrance exams and is invited to be a student at the Brakebills College of Magical Pedagogy, the only school for magicians in the United States. It’s all Quentin has ever dreamed of so of course he accepts – only to find that learning magic is not all he’s ever imagined it to be. It’s tedious, dangerous and not the secret key to happiness he’s been waiting for.
The Magicians follows Quentin from his life immediately before Brakebills, through his five years as a student, and part of his life after graduating from the magic school. It plays with several familiar fantasy elements – everything from learning magic is real to discovering another world to dungeon crawls and D&D. Yet all of these have a different feel than the norm – they’re darker and more realistic (yes, I said realistic about a fantasy story – as in, Quentin’s response to magic rings true more than a lot of other similar stories). I particularly enjoyed the exploration of what might happen if a real teenager found out magic was real once the initial wonder wore off. In spite of its unusual subject, Brakebills was very much like any other college – the work was tedious and often even boring, some of the professors were annoying, and the students spent a lot of time drinking and partying. Magic didn’t make the students’ lives more wonderful and in one instance messing up a spell had very dire consequences, resulting in a terrifying experience for the class involved and a great tragedy for the entire school.
The Fillory books are very reminiscent of The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. Basically, some young children find a magical land in the walls of their aunt’s house, have adventures, defeat villains, and become heroic kings and queens. This is the world Quentin wants to live in, but he finds that real magic is not the same as the stories said it would be.
Part of the problem is a typical human condition – Quentin tends to quickly get bored and think if only he had something else, his life would be better and he’d find that elusive happiness he’s been seeking for his entire life. In the very beginning, he thinks that college may be the change he’s looking for and then he ends up studying to be a magician. It’s amazing and everything he ever dreamed of – at first. Eventually he finds that in the end, he’s still not happy. Graduation and a hedonistic lifestyle of partying with his friends doesn’t change that, either. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence for Quentin, whether he’s looking to the future or toward another woman when he becomes less enthralled with his long-time girlfriend, a very talented, studious lady who cares for him very much.
This is not a happy story and it can be quite devastating at times. It is told with a wry sense of humor which adds at least a little bit of lightness. Although I’m a little concerned about what this one says about me, I did enjoy this conversation in which fellow classmate Josh informed Quentin that he was not at all surprised when another students went a bit crazy:
“Are you kidding? That guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking fucking time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog. To tell you the truth I’m kind of glad he hit you.” (pp. 107)
My main complaints with The Magicians is that it did drag in a couple of places, especially during the time right after graduation when Quentin was not doing a whole lot other than sleeping all day and drinking. The first part of the book where Quentin was studying at Brakebills was more interesting to me than the later parts of it. Also, I didn’t absolutely love any of the characters and my favorite had a rather depressing end. This isn’t really a flaw since it works with the story being told and I don’t think Quentin’s supposed to be particularly lovable, but my favorite books are the ones where I enjoy reading about the characters. This was one I enjoyed more for its sense of humor and take on what would happen if an intelligent, easily bored person discovered magic.
The Magicians is a more thoughtful examination of what would happen if a group of young people discovered magic was real and applied themselves to studying it. It’s a more disturbing, darker look at the type of story many of us grew up reading in which children discovered a new world and rose to be heroes. It’s not one I’d read for the main character, who really was not that sympathetic later in the book, but I did enjoy reading a more “realistic” version of this familiar archetype.