“He was going to sign the papers and he was going to be a motherfucking magician.”
Watch very closely. For my next trick, I’m going to write this review without using the phrase “Harry Potter for adults”.
The Magicians is The Chronicles of Narnia with fucking.
For millions of people, one of the charms of the Harry Potter series is that it was written by a loving mother who would never let anything bad happen to her children. Despite the later books’ gradual darkening in tone, there’s never a serious threat to Harry, Ron, or Hermione’s lives. Boarding school is a charming place to send children away unsupervised. Bullies are easily outclassed and never do any permanent psychological harm. Even the Death Eaters, terrifying bogeymen in the first four books, would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those darn kids. In The Deathly Hallows, both Voldemort and death itself are defeated by love. Then the kids pair off with the friends they’ve known since their first year and nothing bad ever happens to them again. Also, Dumbledore was gay the whole time, but kept quiet about it so as not to offend anybody.
This is fine and good for millions of people, many of whom would be quick to remind me that the Harry Potter series is written for children. But as the characters grew older I couldn’t help but wonder what the books would be like if they were populated by real teenagers– the type of kids who were having sex in school bathrooms before they were even old enough to attend Hogwarts. What sort of humiliating, homoerotic hazing rituals would the male prefects put first year boys through? What would Luna Lovegood have been like if the girls treated her a bit more like Carrie White? Wouldn’t Hermione be the witch to go to when you got knocked up by Fred or George Weasley?
It’s obvious that similar, though perhaps less snarky thoughts occurred to Lev Grossman. The Magicians begins with Quentin Coldwater lamenting that his high school crush will never sleep with him. He and his friends curse and drop clever references to works of literary fantasy. They clearly exist in our place and time, and are believable as hyper-intelligent, self-absorbed, miserable teenagers. When Quentin is granted early acceptance to a magical college in upstate New York, he immediately finds himself in the most serious academic competition of his life. Because unlike Hogwarts, where you can get a scholarship for being a really good person, Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy only accepts students who are unquestionably brilliant.
Grossman tweaks convention throughout the book. In comparison to Rowling’s world, learning magic is monotonous and requires impressive mental and physical dexterity. It’s not, as Quentin muses, “like making salad dressing or driving stick or assembling Ikea furniture,” something anyone can perform with a set of instructions. Also unusual for the genre, there are no post-graduate goals for magicians to pursue. While this may seem suspiciously like lazy world-building, it’s thoroughly logical under the circumstances. The graduates are fully trained magicians. When they get out of Brakebills, nothing is stopping them from doing whatever the hell they want.
But what does Quentin want? Grossman’s novel follows the protagonist through this period of his life as well, as he seeks to find purpose once the world is literally at his fingertips. Without an enemy bent on world-domination to confront, Quentin embarks on a more personal quest to find the inspiration behind the fantasy stories he read as a child. That world, Fillory, is similar to Narnia, but holds a sense of danger about it that lurks outside the text in all fantasies written for children. It’s uncharted territory, both for the characters and the genre. And unlike the grown-up heroes that appear in Rowling’s Potter epilogue, Quentin and his companions don’t emerge unscathed.
The Magicians is a challenging book. Charting Quentin’s path to adulthood, the plot sometimes feels listless, and at other times rushed. The characters are arguably intolerable for most of the novel, like teenagers with too many resources and more sense of entitlement than purpose would be. And it’s unclear by the end of the book if their experiences will have changed them for better. But that’s what makes it fascinating. Grossman doesn’t only ask “What would happen if horny American teenagers went to magic school?” He’s bold enough to challenge the story structure of modern day fantasy novels in a way that few others outside of Gaiman and Mieville have dared.