“The Magicians” was published in 2009, and it’s been reviewed. A lot. And many of those reviews are really great. But I need to write this review for three reasons. 1) I love this book. 2) “The Magicians” was just picked up as a TV show by Fox and it feels topical and relevant. 3) I’ve heard a lot of people say that “The Magicians” is Harry Potter for adults. And it isn’t. It really isn’t. And I’m going to tell you why.
“The Magicians” tells the story of Quentin Coldwater, an unhappy, smart teenager, and his acceptance into and time at Brakebills, a school for wizards. Quentin grows up loving the Fillory series, which is a set of pastoral fantasy novels heavily inspired by C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Partially because of his incredible intelligence and partially because of his love for Fillory, Quentin finds it almost impossible to fit in in the real world. And then he finds his way to Brakebills, the magic academy for the gifted and talented. He meets people like him, people who loved the Fillory novels, people who are incredibly smart and incredibly lonely. Magic ensues, but so does alcoholism, drug-use, and extreme depression.
One of the reasons why The Magicians works so well is because Lev Grossman knows what it’s like to be me and every other kid who grew up loving fantasy novels so much that he or she could think of nothing better than finding that wardrobe into Narnia or that portal into Middle-Earth. And Lev knows because he was that kid. In fact, after following him on twitter, I’m pretty sure he’s still that kid. And Quentin is that kid. I read this fantasy story and felt as though the main character was feeling exactly how I have felt so much of my life. And that becomes important because so infrequently in fantasy do we get a protagonist who is us, the readers who would give anything to be where he or she is.
Now, where this becomes troubling is when Quentin gets everything he (and we) wants; he gets the invitation to the select magical world, he finds out that he’s special, and he goes on a quest. This is all great, and we can root and cheer along with Quentin as he progresses through the narrative, but everything’s not peachy in his world. And this is because Quentin, even after he is literally pulled into an urban fantasy story, is still not happy. It’s still not enough for him. His depression lingers, and we find ourselves (in my case literally) saying, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT?” And this is how Grossman’s novel is so powerful, because it keys in on exactly what our fears are as readers of fantasy.
Alright, for those people out there who are saying The Magicians is just Harry Potter for adults, I have this to say to you: Only kinda. See, if you think Harry Potter is only a story about wizarding pedagogy, then you’re right, The Magicians is just the adult version of Rowling’s books. But Harry Potter is so much more than just a story about a wizard school; it’s a story about the kids and adults in that school. Yes, The Magicians is a book that happens to have a school for wizards in it, but it’s so much more than that. And here’s the really important point: Lev Grossman fast forwards through almost all of the school stuff in The Magicians. He probably does this because he has other things he wants to focus on and other parts of his world to explore, but one other effect is that this becomes a novel that is not at all about a magical school; it’s a novel about the people in it. And when we think of The Magicians and Harry Potter in this way, its easy to see that they are in no way the parent-child story friends that so many people seem to want to make them.
The Magicians made me laugh and it broke my heart both times I read it; I give it 5 out of 5 huge helpings of non-Harry Potter-related lasagna.