Instead of Harry Potter living under a staircase, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (Viking Press, 2009) offers the reader a teenager obsessed with a series of children’s books about Fillory, a magical world.
Quentin, seventeen, is almost ready to go off to college. He is brilliant and bored. He’s smarter than his classmates and knows more than his teachers. He reads his Fillory books and does coin tricks.
Instead of a receiving an owl-dropped note from Hogwarts, Quentin finds his way to Brakebills through an enchanted weedy lot in New York City.
At his interview, he asks incredulously, “Don’t you want to see my SAT scores?”
This is, deliberately, a grown-up version of the Harry Potter series. And it is therefore, perhaps inevitably, more sophisticated and cynical.
What, asks the author of the reader, would you really do if you could do anything—manipulate reality, reverse entropy, travel to the moon in a magical bubble?
Quentin, during his undergraduate Brakebills days, meets two graduates, parents of a gifted young witch, who have sunk into ennui—the father spends his days reshaping their house into varieties of historical architecture. Their dullness is instructive, and depressing, to the boy wizard, who hasn’t a clue to what his life’s purpose is. He hasn’t even found his strongest talent, and none of the teachers can help him.
The most interesting, and most charming, part of The Magicians is Quentin’s school experience. Magical spells in Grossman’s view are more complex than in the Hogwart’s world—one must learn multiple languages and variations to cover all situations. And magic is dangerous.
Not only can one destroy oneself, Quentin learns, by overly emotional spell casting (one then turns into pure blue energy, neither dead nor alive), but one can even bring into the world beings from other realms, dangerous and Interested beings.
Quentin, like other gifted students—but not all—at Brakebills, finds his way at last to graduation and faces the possibility of a bored and cynical existence himself. He and his friends, by chance or fate, instead find a way into Fillory, where they discover at last the usefulness of sorcery and the true meaning of magic.
Grossman’s Quentin is not particularly likable, nor are any of the interesting characters in the novel; rather, the reader is asked to travel along as companion and observer.
Any child yearning to find the way through Platform 9 and three-quarters to the Hogwarts Express might feel less inclined to sorcery after reading The Magicians: it’s a chilling look at the real consequences of manipulating nature.