Magic ruins people for real life. There’s a large portion of us, especially the last two generations, that’s never quite gotten over the fact that we’ve never stepped through the wardrobe into Narnia, no invitation from Hogwarts appeared via owl, and no wizard with a magic ring ever sent us on a quest to save the world. We cannot deal with reality, because after all is said and done, reality is dull. It’s small moments of abject terror surrounded by islands of boredom. It’s not unique. We’re not unique. Somehow when we were reading those books and visiting those other worlds a part, just a bit, of ourselves began to think that maybe something would come along and save us from a future of taxes, traffic jams, and antidepressants. I feel this way, so I was very intrigued to pick up The Magicians, because that is exactly the place in which we find the book’s central character: disillusioned, out of place, and clinically unhappy as he makes his way to an interview for Princeton.
Quentin has been obsessed with fantasy and magic his entire life and, in particular, a sequence of junior fantasy novels about a magical world named Fillory (which is a clear substitute and commentary on C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia). When his interview ends rather abruptly, Quentin finds himself instead enrolled in a college for magical pedagogy (clearly analogous to Harry Potter, but really only in setting, Grossman’s major influence and comment is on the Narnia books). What follows is a coming of age story set in extraordinary settings; from Brakebills School for Magical Pedagogy, to the Antarctic, back to reality, and even to the not-quite-so fictional world of Fillory.
The book covers an enormous amount of time and material in 420 pages or so. Grossman could have easily made this a series of seven or eight books and I almost wish he would have. There are some plot lines that disappear for too long (or entirely) and aspects of the fantastic that I would have loved more time to explore. Character development also suffers to some degree, but the book moves so quickly you don’t really realize it until it’s over. Grossman’s main problem is that Quentin is a bit of a douche. He comes off as whiny and unlikable and when that’s your main character, that’s a bit of an issue. His supporting cast is much more interesting and hence my desire to have seen them fleshed out more. I read the book in one day, but that’s me so it’s hard to use that as a fair basis for comparison.
Grossman’s throwing out some big ideas here, not only handling the normal coming of age issues like love, sex, purpose, morals, etc. but also magic, how magic works in his world (which is clever and rather practical), whether humans are better off without magic, and the nature of power and its effect on those who wield it. But the primary theme of the novel is happiness. Quentin is unhappy before magic visits his life and finds a way to remain unhappy no matter how fantastic his circumstances become. I think a lot of us do that to ourselves whether its because we never got to battle orcs or wield a magic want or because we don’t have “enough money” or the right job. Its this examination that made the novel so compelling a read for me, but it also works as a novel and as an exploration of the fantastic. This was one of my favorite books of 2009 and is worth a pick up of any of this resonates with your constantly yapping inner 10 year-old.