Book Review: The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman (Fantasy, 416 pages, 2009)

One could summarize The Magicians as follows: it is a coming of age novel in which a boy discovers the magical lands he read about and longed for as a child are real.  This assessment would certainly be true, but it would also do a grave injustice to this complex and compelling novel.

Grossman’s book is, indeed, a coming of age story.  It explores the delight, depravity, and despair of teens struggling to come to terms with the world and with themselves.  And I really do mean explores.  Grossman does not toss such themes in lightly, but delves deeply, weaving into the very bones of the plot alienation, dis-affectation, young love, sex, jealousy, and the contradiction of one’s hopes for the future with the often less-than-satisfying reality of that future.

The Magicians is also, indeed, about the protagonist’s discovery that a  seemingly fictional land called Fillory (clearly modeled on Narnia) is a real place.  Not just real, but Real.  As in filled with many dark and terrible things not spoken of in the dog-eared pages of the novels he loved as a child.  As in another parable for casting off the silly, golden-tinged dreams of youth and replacing them with the more nuanced and treacherous realities of adulthood.

The story follows Quentin Coldwater, a young man who, when preparing to depart Brooklyn for college, finds himself instead transported to a secret school for magic.  Always feeling that he was destined for a future less mundane than the Ivy League, Quentin quickly embraces his new situation, discovering his power, making clever new friends, and falling in love.  All in Quentin’s life, however, is not roses.  One thing The Magicians does extremely well is face head on the fact that new circumstances will not change who a person fundamentally is.  And Quentin is fundamentally unhappy, always feeling as if the now is not enough, as if something is missing.

The plot soon takes a darker turn, and I will not spoil it’s many twisting and satisfying turns by recounting them here.  Suffice it to say, the real magic of The Magicians is not it’s central conceit, nor its realistic characters, nor its clever upending of canonical fiction, such as the Chronicles of Naria or Harry Potter.  The magic of The Magicians is Grossman’s truly masterful plotting.  Every piece of the tale, no matter how trivial it may seem when first related, clicks into place by the end of the novel, creating (as if bewitched by a spell) a brilliant narrative structure.

Truly, what Grossman has created here is masterful.  Dark, sometimes ugly, and often uncomfortable.  But masterful nonetheless.