Lev Grossman’s The Magicians follows the story of Quentin Coldwater, a very intelligent but moody and often lonely teenager who happens to also be a magician. In the book’s early pages, Quentin quickly finds out that he can perform magic, passes an entrance exam for Brakebills School for Magic, and embarks on a journey to becoming a magician. (If this reminds you of a cultural phenomenon known as Harry Potter, well, I’ll get to that.) From there the story progresses quickly, following Quentin and his classmates through their adventures in learning magic and eventually transitioning into life in the “real world,” whatever that may mean for young magicians in New York. (And if that seems a little thin on summary, I’ll get to the book’s atypical plot structure eventually, too.)
Let’s pause for the inevitable Harry Potter comparisons. A modern fantasy novel, set at a school for young magicians? It’s hard not to see the similarities. Grossman himself even makes passing acknowledgments of this in the text; Quentin remarks on Hermione’s studying habits and bemoans that not all intelligent, would-be magicians are actually like her. Beyond these initial obvious similarities, however, the two works are fairly different. While the Harry Potter series is a gradual coming of age story, following Harry and his friends from childhood to a kind of young-adult maturity, The Magicians is more about the transition into adulthood and the inevitable struggles of growing up, figuring out what to do with life, and the stupid things done in that transitional phase. Essentially, it’s the difference between middle/high school and college/immediately post-college-- while the ages of those involved may not seem that far off, their experiences are radically different. (As an aside, as someone still mired in the latter of those stages, I found that this setting made the characters and their struggles appreciably relatable.) There’s a reason The Magicians has gained the reputation of being “Harry Potter for grown ups,” and while that characterization is overly simplistic, there is certainly some truth there.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that focusing on the Harry Potter comparisons shortchanges the more critical Narnia comparison constantly lurking in the novel’s background. While Narnia is never mentioned explicitly, Quentin (and many of his friends) are obsessed with a series of children’s books set in a magical world called Fillory, which effectively serves as a Narnia stand-in. The idea of this fantastical realm proves to be a powerful motivator for the young magicians, and in the long run is much more crucial to the overall plot than any surface-level similarities with Harry Potter.
Despite these overt references and similarities to fantasy canon, however, one of the most enjoyable aspects of The Magicians is the way that Grossman plays with the conventions and structures of a typical coming-of-age fantasy story. For a book that starts out as a story about learning at a magical college, the pacing and plot takes some unexpected turns. For one thing, Quentin and his classmates’ five years at Brakebills is only the first third the book. This sped-up timeline contributes to the unusual overall structure of the plot. While a great deal of fantasy plots revolve around a epic quest with a clear enemy and/or end goal, The Magicians drifts along almost aimlessly, much more content to simply follow its characters as they try to figure out their lives. This lack of an overt overarching quest actually allows the novel to move briskly and eliminates what might otherwise be slow or sagging bits of plot. Not only does the plot move without much drag, but since Grossman bucks the standard arc of an epic quest, it’s also that much more difficult to predict what’s coming. As a result, the book reads fairly quickly while still being compelling and, importantly, interesting and even unexpected.
Probably not surprisingly, the lack of an epic structure also impacts the presentation of the book’s protagonists, and the standard ideal of a hero in fantasy is not really on display here. Quentin is not the infallible hero of so much fantasy, on a journey to fulfill an inevitable destiny. Nor is he an antihero, exactly; for the most part, he just … exists. He is a driven individual, just not driven to any goal in particular. Quentin does eventually get some sense of direction in the later portion of the book (or at least he thinks he does), but even that gets muddled with personal issues and doesn’t quite work out as anticipated. While I enjoy epic fantasies and their heroes as much as the next person, I found this undercutting of the traditional hero refreshing. Having magic does not automatically make Quentin and his classmates’ lives better, or guarantee them a major adventure or destiny, nor does it guarantee that they’ll deal well with adversity when it does eventually find them.
The major pitfall of this non-epic heroic structure, however, is that we’re left with frustrating and sometimes downright unlikeable protagonists. There is no sense, for instance, that Quentin is driven to some ultimate good, therefore making his occasionally (and increasingly frequent) pettiness and sulkiness forgivable as part of a journey or personal growth. Instead, it seems like… well, standard pettiness like we might encounter from anyone in our own lives, and is about as enjoyable. And as there is no epic journey sketched out for Quentin, it becomes harder to write off his increasingly annoying habits and self-involvement as the traditional low point every hero must go through before he rises high in triumph. Instead, one gets the sneaking suspicion that it is an irremovable part of Quentin’s character to be at least a little petty at all times. While this is not a deal breaker for the book, it is often frustrating. There is a reason most authors make likable heroes—it’s a lot harder to enjoy a book when you want to reach through the page and throttle the characters. Realistic, yes; fun to read, not as much.
Quibbles with the characters’ attitudes aside, however, there is still clearly much to recommend about The Magicians. More than any book I’ve read, The Magicians gives a sense of magicians dealing with the real world, trying to figure out how to grow into adulthood and deal with life while also dealing with magic. If only the realism stopped short of making me want to slap Quentin and his cohorts repeatedly, I’d have fewer qualms in my praises.