When I first browsed through Lev Grossman’s The Magicians at Blue Elephant Bookshop, I knew it was a book that was coming home with me. The jacket blurb promised a book for adults who, as young readers, had adored the Narnia, Oz, and Harry Potter stories, and books like T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. And indeed, The Magicians draws liberally and lovingly from those sources. There is a magic school filled with eccentric professors and strange wonders, teaching by turning students into animals (as Merlyn does with the Wart in The Once and Future King), and even a hidden fantasy world accessed through a sleepy “between” world filled with pools, a motif familiar to anyone who has read C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, one of the best of the Narnia books.
Even the characters in The Magicians grew up reading and loving a series of fantasy books, stories of a magical land called Fillory—one filled with quests, talking animals, mythical beats, and walking gods. That fond, nostalgic love is one of the reasons we are so drawn to them. In our mind’s eyes, we find ourselves pointing, smiling, and shouting, “friend!”
But don’t get the idea that The Magicians is a mere pastiche. The Magicians is told from a decided, utterly (even ironically) original, and heartbreaking, adult point of view.
Every page is dripping with unabashed love for the stories that moved and changed us at formative periods in our lives. But nonetheless, The Magicians is utterly unsentimental. Brakebills, the magical college, is filled with marvels, of course. But it is also filled with the tedium, hard work, angst, sex, and alcohol abuse one might expect in a novel about MIT or Georgia Tech. When the characters discover that Fillory, the fantasy land they loved as children, is real, they find it fraught with very real dangers they are utterly unprepared to face. And therein lies the genius, and the heartbreak, of The Magicians.
In the fantasies we love, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia, for example, the characters may seem ordinary. But ultimately, they are heroic, larger than life. They are our idealized selves, the wish-fulfillment individuals we always hope we might be, or at least might someday become. The characters in The Magicians are flawed and all to close ordinary, everyday humanity. They are broken, wounded, and petulant, and they do selfish, petty things. They don’t mean to, or even want to, but that makes the heartbreak even more poignant. They learn, in the hardest way possible, that our careless, most casual fights are like spells—when the words are spoken, the world changes and people are hurt. Sometimes forever.
The hardest lesson of all for the characters The Magicians is that fulfilled wishes don’t necessarily lead to happiness. Fantasy, regardless of the individual merits of any one particular work, is often accused of being mere escapism (Professor Tolkien famously dismissed that criticism by suggesting that the only people for whom escape is a problem are jailers), and I myself can remember reading Narnia and wishing for the secret path or hidden gate that would open up and take me away to my imagined “real life” of heroism and adventure. In The Magicians, the gates open to places where defeat is likely, victory empty, and where good people die. The true gates to happiness, to maturity, to fulfillment, such as it is, lie within. It’s up to us to open them. Or not.
Looking back over this, I think I might have painted The Magicians a little unfairly. Like I said, it is utterly unsentimental, and it’s characters are flawed in all-too-human ways. But for all that, it is a charming book, one I raced through. The world it creates is fascinating and seductive. The characters, for all their wounds, are people you’ll want to spend time with. There are beauties in this book that you will long to experience. The story is gripping. You’ll remember those long-ago nights staying way too late to read under the covers with a flashlight. In spite of your very best intentions, you’ll find yourself caring, maybe a little too much.
And it is caring, of course, that leads to heartbreak.