December 8, 2009

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is Harry Potter meets Narnia meets Brideshead Revisited meets Douglas Coupland.

The protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, starts off as a maladjusted geek who’s in love with his best friend’s girlfriend. He escapes into the Fillory books, which describe the adventures of a family of English schoolchildren in a magical land filled with talking animals. After his interviewer for a place at Princeton drops dead, he’s invited to join Brakebills, an elite magical college.

Brakebills is Hogwarts, but with more grit. Without the magic, Hogwarts is an English boarding school. The nearest mundane equivalent to Brakebills is a small Oxbridge college. Undergrads drink and screw, as undergrads do; everyone knows everyone’s business; new arrivals end up reeling from the shock of being given work which taxes them and of being surrounded by people as intelligent as them, if not more so. It turns out that magic isn’t about learning the secrets of the universe, or waving a wand and uttering some cod Latin and having everything just work: it’s more like learning Basque while juggling. So far, so very familar.

The Brakebills section is enjoyable: Quentin grows up a bit, acquires some comrades, chooses to face a trial, and overcomes it. But on graduating, he and his friends are lost. Not just in the come down after the party, or the come down after an intense intellectual effort (recall Philip Swallow in Changing Places, who saw the run up to his final exams as the high point of his intellectual career), but because as magicians they’ve become the idle rich, people who can have anything they want, if only they knew what that was. Only Quentin’s much more sensible girlfriend, Alice, seems to be able to cope with the existential problems of being a wizard. The rest of them need a story to be in, and don’t have one.

Many people in that situation end up finding a religion and writing their lives as fan-fiction. The magicians go one better, and find their way into a story by finding their way into NarniaFillory. Will this finally give their lives some meaning? I won’t spoil the ending by telling you.

Grossman’s borrowings from other works are done knowingly: the Brakebills students are as media-savvy as any teenagers, so of course they make jokes about Quidditch; the Fillory section reads like someone’s report of a dungeon crawl (albeit a particularly well-written one), so the magicians arm themselves with spells they name Magic Missile and Fireball after their D&D counterparts. But Grossman’s not merely mugging for the camera, writing a modern Bored of the Rings. He wants to jar us by combining a modern novel with a children’s fantasy setting, and he succeeds. Watching the magicians stumble through Fillory is like hearing someone swear in a cathedral.

Grossman can write, and supplies us with wit as well as grit. I read the book in one sitting, after which the sound of birds outside the window reminded me that sleep might be a good idea. Abigail Nussbaum (whose review you should read, although be warned it gives away more of the plot than I have) wishes that Grossman had the courage of his convictions. I like the relentlessly grim SF novel as much as anyone, but I find it hard to fault Grossman for giving his protagonist a second chance. I enjoyed it in any case. Recommended.