It’s impossible to talk about Lev Grossman’s The Magicians without referencing both Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia (seriously, go look for a review of the book that doesn’t mention either of those two fantasy classics). But I doubt Grossman would mind, because the parallels are obviously intentional. Grossman’s main character, Quentin Coldwater, is a brilliant but unhappy New York teenager who grew up reading a series of books about English children who find their way into a magical land called Fillory — an obvious Narnia parallel (though there are echoes here of other children’s fantasy classics, right down to Alice in Wonderland). Preparing to leave high school for university, Quentin finds himself transported instead to a top-secret school for magicians.
But Brakebills is very far from being an upstate-New-York version of Hogwarts. Magic is hard work and sometimes boring rather than being charming or picturesque, and the darkly sinister undercurrent of this story comes not from an evil Dark Lord but from the teenage and young-adult magicians themselves, who have all the hangups and personality disorders of unhappy young people everywhere — but who also have the ability to use magic.
Two of Quentin’s deepest secret dreams come true in this novel — he becomes a magician, and he actually gets to go to a magical land. Yet he remains throughout the same unhappy, disaffected schmuck he always was — and his friends aren’t much better. There were a lot of times in the novel I wanted to take Quentin and shake him, but I couldn’t help admit that his reaction to sudden magical powers was probably a lot more realistic than that of Harry Potter and his crowd. If life itself is not magical, then no amount of magic is going to make it so.
The book is tightly plotted and absolutely engaging, and kept me turning pages to the end. I can’t say I ever grew to like Quentin as a character, but I did care about his misadventures. It’s weird to say that a fantasy novel is filled with gritty realism, but this one is, and it’s as bold, innovative and creative a twist on the fantasy genre as you’re likely to read this year.