The great challenge of any fantasy novel is to create a self-contained world that has a kind of fey logic to its strangeness, a world that introduces magic and mythical creatures while convincing readers that it makes sense on its own terms. Tolkien’s great success with the Lord of the Rings comes from his rather manic insistence that Middle Earth have an internal cohesion, geography, a history, and even a linguistic system.
Bizarre as it is to think of the old Oxford don creating an elven language before he created a narrative, it is this attention to detail that makes his work a true classic. In fact, it is probably this that carries many of us through his often ponderous prose bristling with the reactionary politics of heroism common to the epic fantasy form.
Lev Grossman has pulled off an even more difficult task in The Magicians, shaping a fantasy world that exists in simultaneity with our own. Other classics writers like C.S. Lewis, Neil Gaiman, and J.K. Rowling have yanked this rabbit out of the hat. But Grossman succeeds in creating a fully realized 21st century America and a new kind of portal into a dark and forbidding world of adventure.
No train rides to Hogwarts or clothing storage opening out into Narnia here. Grossman pulls his protagonist into a much more forbidding place, a world of magic that is also a world of adolescent illusions, the rocky shoals of modern sexual relationships, and the frightening possibilities of vast power in the hands of the morally immature.
Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant Holden Caulfieldesque 17-year-old, lives with his decidedly un-magical parents in modern Brooklyn. Coldwater longs for more and lives a rich imaginative life through his fascination with the fanciful Fillory novels. These books are a barely disguised version of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, complete with English children in the countryside who find a secret portal to a world of talking animals and empty thrones waiting for humans to fill them.
This life-long obsession with magical and mythical worlds becomes a reality for Quentin when what he thinks is an interview for Princeton offers him the chance to study magic. He soon finds himself at a school called Brakebills, an ancient institution hidden from the world by protective warding spells in upstate New York. Quentin gets to live out a fantasy nerd’s dream, falling in love and becoming a part of band of magical adventurers along the way.
Grossman’s plot makes the reader feel, very briefly, that they are on familiar, perhaps even derivative, ground. But Quentin’s world is a world of wizards who have read all the wizarding classics, able to make ironic references to quidditch and drop f-bombs as effortlessly as luminosity spells. Brakebills is what a real Hogwarts might be, a place where head wizards are not loving fatherly figures but jealous academics who mix avuncular advice to their charges with a bit of cruelty. Wands are considered more than a little embarrassing “like training wheels, or a marital aid”. Stinking with class privilege with a bit of boarding school sodomy thrown in for good measure, the world created by Grossman exhibits a darkness more frightening and more real than what Rowling has managed at her most melancholy.
Also unlike Rowling, Grossman lets his kids truly grow up, graduate, and try to live in the real world. Grossman sends his group of young adventurers on a quest that reveals the barely-hidden imperialist impulses that have always been a part of the fantasy tale. In the end, this adventure shows us, not a world of fairy-tale monsters, but the sometimes monstrous nature of fairy tales themselves. The conclusion reveals a series of terrible secrets about the Fillory books that have long obsessed Quentin and calls into question the very nature of magic itself.
Unfortunately, The Magicians lasts about 20 pages longer than it should. It’s one of those tales that comes to full maturation and ends in a compelling way, only to have its author give it an unnatural life beyond the grave and create another conclusion that minces up the meaning of the entire book. The ending, in fact, prepares the reader for a sequel that (we are told when flipping one page past the end of the text) is coming in summer of 2011. I suspect that even more unnecessary sequels will be queuing up behind it.
This final, false note does not prevent Grossman’s novel from offering a compelling meditation on the nature of fantasy. This is a book that addresses deeper questions about the reader’s relationship to reality and even delves into the seemingly perennial human attachment to unhappiness. Like the work of Phillip Pullman, Grossman rejects and holds up for ridicule the pallid Christian allegories of Narnia and the gee-whizism of Harry Potter in favor of a complex tale that will evoke a recognizable and revelatory sadness for most readers.
While reading this novel, I found myself thinking again and again of Stephen Donaldson’s revisionist fantasy epic, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Donaldson’s now classic work used fantasy conventions while turning them on their head, calling into question Tolkien’s (and other “high fantasy” author’s) fascination with heroism, hypermasculinity, violence, and tribal attitudes toward war and its alleged glories.
Grossman has succeeded in doing for the world of Narnia and Hogwarts what Stephen Donaldson did with Middle Earth. The Magicians exposes the secret poisons of those too-beloved narratives, the dangers of being haunted by dreams of fantastic worlds.