Under the Spell of The Magicians

the-magicians-by-lev-grossmanWhat if we found our way into a magical world, but were still weighted down by our mundane personalities?  That’s the question at the heart of Lev Grossman’s engrossing mix of realism and fantasy, The Magicians. Grossman is the book critic for Time magazine and hasn’t published in this genre before, so I knew not to expect the standard fantasy epic. Protagonist Quentin is a teenage prodigy, a standardized test killer of the first degree. His two best friends are Julia and James, and Quentin, who has a major thing for Julia, is the odd man out of the triangle. He keeps his chin just above the rising flood of depression by practicing sleight-of-hand magic and re-reading the Fillory books, a five-book fantasy series that Grossman seems to pattern most closely after C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, but which also includes elements of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.

Everything changes when Quentin goes to an Ivy League admissions interview. Finding the interviewer dead, he receives the manuscript of an unknown Fillory novel from a beautiful, mysterious EMT, and soon finds himself taking a very different entrance examination, one to enter Brakebills, a school for wizards hidden away in upstate New York.

This isn’t Harry Potter. Quentin and his Brakebills friends are more worldly than the Hogwarts crowd. They couple off, drink, and behave more like American college students than English public school kids. Despite their intelligence and abilities, they suffer from a variety of real world problems–depression, relationship woes, stress, bad parents, competition, and the like–that even the wonders of magic can’t banish. Magic in Grossman’s world is not just a matter of pluck and wand waving. It’s dangerous, and some students pay with their sanity or with their lives.

This isn’t the cheeriest scenario, and as such, opinion will be strongly divided in most book groups. But it’s a great fantasy choice for literary fiction fans, particularly if they have at least dipped into some of the classic fantasies I mentioned earlier. Those who look beyond genre expectations will find a book that is often surprising, unflinchingly honest, and hard to put down. Grossman has a real gift for turning a phrase. Even if you are frustrated with the sullen attitudes of some of the characters, you’ll probably be stealing their best lines.

I’ll be thinking about this novel for years to come. If you’re a fantasy fan, it will challenge the way that you think about that magical dream of crossing into another realm. Whether your book group members are fantasy readers or not, I guarantee that The Magicians will generate an active discussion.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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