It seemed like a good idea to read The Magicians before tackling Lev Grossman’s new sequel, The Magician King. The first book was hailed as a grown-up fusion of The Narnia Chronicles and Harry Potter, with a magical college hidden in plain view in upstate New York on the Hudson and various portals and spellbinding journeys ferrying people to and from the real world. I think the critics left out the heavy influence of Sartre that trumped magic at every point in the book.
The Magicians was a good read for about the first two-thirds of the fantasy and a depressing descent into drunkenness, betrayal, mindless bravado and delusion for the last third. Severed limbs, exploded good and bad guys, miserable weather, horrible death and disfigurement seem to be what magic will produce when mixed with reality. The protagonist was a loser who sort of found himself in Magician U. but reverted to unattractive loser status as soon as he was cut loose. I hate a hero’s journey that’s just aimless bar-hopping, partner-swapping and “Hey, let’s do this because we’re all so fekking bored!” So I’m not too sure I will spend hours tomorrow slogging through the adventures in book two.
Quentin Coldwater is a really really bright high school student who can’t get the girl, reads his childhood fantasy series obsessively and wishes he could live in Lev Grossman’s version of Narnia, a place called Fillory. One day, he gets his wish. But first he wanders through a portal near the toxic Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn and winds up casting spells in Hogwarts-on-Hudson. The college is called Brakebills; it is extremely old and part of a post-secondary international consortium of magical prep colleges. Students are sorted into cliques, wear uniforms, memorize endless magical formulae and occasionally die.
Our hero meets a new girl-of-his-dreams, befriends an odd assortment of fellow magicians-in-training, does his semester abroad in Antarctica after an unusual migratory flight, and becomes a very competent and self-absorbed spell-caster. Upon graduation he embraces a pointless existence as a subsidized lush in Manhattan, wrecks his relationship with his admirable live-in magician girlfriend and sees rescue from the utter ennui of his life in the accidental chance to visit the land of his childhood fantasy books.
In Fillory, things go from extremely bad to a whole lot worse. It’s Narnia on steroids. No Aslan, lots of dismemberment, little charm. Lev Grossman is a fluent writer. He cooks up some plot surprises and he delivers solid characters who are believable, if not especially likable. By the end, that’s what got me counting pages. I just couldn’t empathize with a bunch of brilliant, over-privileged, highly-trained, immature fuck-ups. Quentin had me for a while but he lost me in a boozy Tribeca loft and I was more irritated than sad when the wrong people ended up on the wrong end of dark magic in the dungeon. I need my literary realism masquerading as fantasy to have some redemptive quality—life outside of books is grim enough.
Maybe I’ll read the sequel next or maybe I’ll return it on time to the library instead. New books have a shorter check-out time than books that have been around for a while and there is undoubtedly a long line of anxious readers waiting for this one. If I don’t read it now, The Magician King will be yesterday’s news by the time I get my hands on it again. If I do read it now, I’m in for many more hours of fantastical dysfunction. Scarlett O’Hara had the only possible line here, “I’ll think about it tomorrow.”
The Magicians: A Novel Lev Grossman | Viking 2009