When I friends asked me what “The Magicians ” by Lev Grossman is about, the very inadequate explanation I came up about was, it’s a mix of Harry Potter and Narnia, if those had typical college-going teenagers in it. Of course, this one sentence doesn’t do any justice to the book.
At surface, it’s the story of a young 4.0GPA student, Quentin Clearwater. He is living in shadow of his more personable (and equally intelligent) friends, happily obsessed with his fantasies about his childhood favourite books about the magical world of Fillory. On the day of his interview with a college alumni, he is diverted to, and gains an entrance to Brakebills Academy, a secret college for real magicians.
He immediately feels a sense of belonging in the place, and finds close friends, and a girlfriend, Alice. His years there are spent learning difficult spells, the nature of magic, and the dangers inherent in playing with magic. At the end of his education, he joins his friends in New York, and is trying to figure out what to do with his future, when a great opportunity comes knocking – a chance to travel to his dreamland, Fillory.
As I said, at first glance, this is a tale of Hogwarts and Narnia (contrast the cover to the one for Magician’s Nephew), for mature audience, with mature (age-wise, at least) characters. The narrative has adult themes (and dialogs). But Quentin and his friends are far from typical fantasy heroes. While most of them are decadent layabouts looking for a firm purpose in life, Quentin is at various times selfish, flighty and unthinkingly hurtful, hardly likeable characteristics. Probably the only normal, likeable character is that of shy but studious Alice.
Personally, I feel the book is a pessimist’s (some would say a realist’s) view of fantasy. Typical magician in the book has access to unlimited resources of all kind, and a prolonged lifetime to spend them and indulge in his/her interests. While this would seem to be a great opportunity, given their magical powers, a hardworking adult magician is really hard to find outside the school.
At one level, Quentin, Alice, and his friends Elliot, Penny are misfits living with their fantasies (which makes them great magicians). At the same time, they are typical college kids who are trying to figure out what to do with the opportunities and talents they possess. While Brakebills has them attending classes (though even that is not given that much time in the story), their post-college years devolve into procrastination, and typical things any groups of rich bachelors will get into.
It’s a hard book to like if you enter it expecting a light reading, and the dark humour makes it a not a quick reading either. But stick with the tale, and you will be rewarded with a tale to make you think about the things we take for granted in magical journeys.
There are a lot more fantasy books on this blog.