Review: ‘The Magicians’ by Lev Grossman

These days, fantasy books are either Tolkien-inspired knockoffs, infested with vampires or Harry Potter. It used to be that every “fantasy” book was about quests and dragons, wizards with long white beards and the involvement of some sort of elf. Then there came something of a revelation in the market when authors realized that stories involving magic did not have to happen in some make-believe land. It seems in vogue for fantasy stories to take place under our noses: Little boys are actually wizards and mysterious strangers are vampires waiting to become your boyfriend. Not many books these days are about the discovery and control of magic itself. Not many books show us how magic works, how it could exist in our own world or, most importantly, how we would realistically react to magic’s existence. In “The Magicians,” Quentin Coldwater is an outstandingly intelligent 17-year-old on the college track to Princeton. He lives in Brooklyn and learns magic tricks as a hobby. His favorite books are a series of 1930’s era adventures remarkably similar to C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. One fall day, Quentin stumbles through an inner-city garden and arrives at a summer estate. He has been invited to take an exam to determine if he has any magical ability. If he passes he will be enrolled in the prestigious Brakebills College, the only school of magic in North America. What distinguishes “The Magicians” from the ever-growing slush pile of the fantasy market is Grossman’s strong and distinctive voice, his multidimensional characters and his flawless marriage of magic and realism. The explanation and use of magic in the world is a mystical process, but it’s not dramatic. The students at Brakebills are overachieving geniuses, who could easily be found at Harvard, rather than a school of magic. The book is not so much about what the characters do with their magic abilities as how they feel about them. Quentin is an amazing hero in the novel because he is flawed in a way that many people are flawed. He is unhappy. Just as real people always seem to want what they cannot have, Quentin is stuck in a similar state. Even as his life expands beyond his wildest dreams, Quentin still finds things to worry about, to envy and to question. Where “The Magicians” also succeeds is that it explores a plotline that would ordinarily be ridiculous: What happens when a fan discovers his literary paradise is real. Grossman writes logically, following lines of thought that Quentin, if he were a real person, would think. It is a rare work of realistic and emotional fantasy.