In The Magicians, Lev Grossman has created a whole new world that will appeal to fantasy buffs and mainstream readers alike. While firmly rooted in the traditions that spawned Tolkien and Rowling, this is a novel with a core of reality that speaks to a wider audience. This is Harry Potter for grown-ups; The Lord of the Rings with realism; a gritty, hard-edged, contemporary take on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. This novel makes the dream of attending a school for magicians a far more likely prospect. It could be true, it could.
Lev Grossman is a senior writer and book critic for TIME, and co-author of the TIME.com blog Techland. He has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Village Voice among other publications, and has served as a member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle and as the chair of the Fiction Awards Panel. Grossman’s previous novels are Warp (1997) and Codex (2004).
At the center of The Magicians is Quentin Coldwater. Quentin is an exceptionally gifted young man who has always been at the very pinnacle in all academic pursuits. He lives in Brooklyn and finds that his life is not at all want he wants it to be. Like any teenager, he is intensely dissatisfied and believes that if only his circumstances could change then he would be happy. His circumstances do indeed change when he finds himself magically transported to Brakebills.
Brakebills is a college for magicians, hidden by spells and talismans in the depths of upstate New York. After completing a rigorous, if unusual, examination, Quentin finds himself accepted into a course of study, and so begins his magical journey. At the school he makes friends who will be with him throughout the novel. Together these young people face the sorts of issues that we have all had to deal with: peer pressure, sex, alcohol, drugs, work, and relationships. The first half of the novel deals with this passage through the perils of young adulthood and out the other side into the real world.
This part of the novel bounces along very quickly. Whereas Harry Potter spent every book as a student at Hogwarts, Quentin’s school life is dealt with in 200 pages. That is not to say that it is glossed over at all. In fact Grossman’s treatment of this period is better for being handled in this way. We are given the key elements of the young magicians’ lives rather than a boring day-to-day account. Brakebills, like any school, is a place one’s character and intellect is shaped. In the first half of The Magicians, Lev Grossman gives us the important information and sets the characters up for life after college.
The second half of the novel is dedicated to the young magicians’ adventures once out of school. We are privy to the typical tales of excess that you would expect from young people just out of college. Just when things seem to be at their worst for Quentin, he and his cohorts are led into an otherworldly quest, complete with centaurs, naiads, and talking trees. Quentin needs to find a way through his own personal issues while dealing with experiences way outside any he has confronted before.
All the magic and mysticism aside, The Magicians is a fine example of a coming of age novel. The protagonist, Quentin, has to work his way through all of the normal teenage dramas as he moves toward the end of his schooling. He learns to find value in himself and that true happiness comes from within. He has to deal with finding and losing love, infidelity and betrayal, and the rationalization of hopes and dreams.
The Magicians is the confident next step in a journey begun by J. K. Rowling. Whereas the Harry Potter novels were written for children, this book is aimed at far more sophisticated readers. There is a gritty reality to what is really just a fairy story. Lev Grossman has seamlessly blended the fantasy staples of quest, magic, and mythical creatures, with the angst, joy, and heartache that exist in the real world. The Magicians is a realistic contemporary novel with magic, rather than a fantasy novel trying to be realistic. A job very well done by Lev Grossman.