Book Review: The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

'The Magicians,' by Lev Grossman (cover)I don’t know the process whereby Lev Grossman came to write the first of his trilogy, but I can imagine its developing something like this…

The germ of the story would be a what-if question an author might ask of himself, a rather involved question along these lines:

Stories centered around magic and fantasy lands are all so damned full of wonder: of the characters’ (sometimes just the reader’s) slack-jawed omigosh-so-utterly-amazing appreciation of the miraculous. Suppose such a book, with such a subject and setting, was populated instead by realistic, no, by out-and-out cynical characters: characters bored of magic, characters who sneer at the course of their lives which has led them to magic, characters — no matter how magically talented — who often out-and-out hate magic and refuse to use it? What would such a book be like? Hmm. Let me see…

The most direct route to an answer would start with the age of cynicism, “age” in the sense of both an historical era and a time of individual human lifespan. It would start, in short, with 21st-century American teenagers — even better, perhaps, teenagers from New York City (and specifically, best of all, from finger-snapping nasal-voweled Brooklyn).

The book describes the coming to adulthood of its protagonist, one Quentin Coldwater. Seventeen years old at the book’s opening, Quentin is a young near-man intent — almost by default — on entry to an Ivy League university. But his way there is cut short; he receives admission not to Princeton, but to a private school he (and the reader) has never heard of: Brakebills College.

Even if you know nothing at all of Grossman’s book, except for its title, you might guess the nature of Brakebills: it’s a school of magic (its full name, Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy).

The Magicians was published in 2009, a couple of years after the last book in the Harry Potter series. Those familiar with J.K. Rowling’s books might be forgiven for picturing Brakebills as a sort of university to which Hogwarts graduates might aspire. Not so, or rather not quite.

About halfway into The Magicians, I came across an explicit reference — apparently the only one — to the Rowling books. The very brief passage, almost a throwaway line, explains how a particular spell cast by Hermione Granger wouldn’t work at all as expected in the “real world” of Brakebills. This interested me both as a commentary on the differences between the two fantasy universes, and as an example of something which almost never happens in fiction: actual, other, more or less contemporary fiction is almost never mentioned.

Brakebills exists in the novel’s real world of upstate New York. The location is never pinned down, understandably, but I got the impression that it was maybe somewhere in the Catskills, and accidental discovery by non-magical types is prevented by many magical effects. The calendar is not the one recognized by the outside world, either; it seems that these protective spells haven’t aged well. “They’re getting eccentric in their old age,” explains a friend, “and somewhere in the 1950s time started spinning off its axis [at the college]… we’re a little behind the mainstream. Two months twenty-eight days, give or take a few hours.”

At one point Quentin and this friend, Eliot, embark in a scull on a river which runs near the campus:

They got about half a mile upstream before the summer day abruptly vanished around them and became chilly and gray. Quentin thought it was a summer squall until Eliot explained that they’d reached the outer limits of whatever concealment spells had been applied to the Brakebills grounds, and it was November again. They wasted twenty minutes rowing up past the change and then drifting back down again, up and back, watching the sky change color, feeling the temperature drop and then soar and then drop again.

So what happens when Quentin passes his admission test and attends Brakebills, as the rules of growing-up-with-magic stories would seem to require?

I will tell you that what he’s being trained for — and the training itself — is both easier and more difficult than Quentin imagined, both more fun and more frightening; that he forms lasting friendships with a handful of people, falling in love (although he doesn’t know it) with one of them; that he wastes an absolute bejeezusload of time and attention on many of the wrong pursuits (the unofficial extracurricular ones, like boozing and eating); that he and his friends are tested, tested fiercely, both by their school lives and by what happens after; and that the book’s denouement serves as a transparent hook into the next title in Grossman’s series.

Beyond that, you’ll have to find your plot spoilers in some other review, haha.

Which is not to say, obviously, that there’s nothing at all further to review. In particular, I wanted to discuss three things, briefly: the characters, the language, and the “feel” of the book.

(It’s tempting to linger on the mechanics of magic, as Grossman has imagined them to be: what sorts of spells are cast, and how; what they do; how magic fits into the familiar real world of twentieth-century America, especially New York City. Discovering those mechanics is one of the pleasures the book offers, though. I’m glad I didn’t know any of it before reading, and I won’t relieve any of your own curiosity on this score.)

First, the characters — specifically, Quentin himself.

His surname, Coldwater, is no accidental choice by the author. Quentin is unhappy, something of an outsider in the real world and — although an adept — never quite an insider in the magical one, either. He has a hard time fitting in, psychologically and socially, coming across as self-conscious but not especially self-aware: he doesn’t understand himself half so well as we come to, or as the other characters do. He’s reluctant to take action, and broods about actions once taken. He takes magic somewhat for granted. He betrays his friends in small ways and large, and sulks and frets when they turn the tables on him.

Quentin is, in short, a rather spoiled young man — except for the magic part (obviously a big exception), not much different from a lot of disaffected young people who have no idea how they can fit into the world, or even how (or even if) they want to.

Does that make him unlikable? Well, no: because we as readers (and probably his friends, implicitly) know something else about Quentin. He knows he can be better — “be better” both in the sense of being kinder and more considerate, less dissolute, a better human… and in the sense of being well: close to if not 100% healthy mentally, socially, and physically. But real life disappointed him, and magical life wasn’t perfect. (At a minimum, even by book’s end he doesn’t know his magical specialty — his “discipline.” This is equivalent to getting a standard undergraduate degree without knowing what he majored in.) Worse, magical life, his longed-for salvation, seems to have actively turned on him, costing him much more than he had ever bargained for. He just needs (as he and we sense, equally) something to give him the final nudge of meaning

Next: the language.

The Magicians was not Lev Grossman’s first published novel but, I think, his third or fourth. I haven’t read any of his earlier ones, but he’s obviously an accomplished writer. I didn’t note any awkwardnesses, and in the course of reading the book highlighted numerous passages which I really liked strictly for the writing alone, or for the effect of the writing. For instance, in describing a picnic attended by Quentin and several of his Brakebills friends:

The wine was almost gone, the empty bottles bobbing around in the tin buckets, which were now full of lukewarm water in which a wasp had drowned.

That feels like a perfect sentence to me, especially in context: the young people are bored, they’re sort of annoyed with one another and with their (very challenging) school assignment of the moment, they’re drunk and confused, and it’s summertime. The one point of potential interest is itself gone — the booze, the vessels lukewarm. Even the wasp will never sting.

Grossman also makes use of some very specific, uncommon vocabulary (which helps in maintaining an undercurrent of mystery): gonfallons, for example (they’re banners, often with streamers, hanging from a horizontal pole or crossbar), and glebe (which the Kindle’s built-in dictionary defines as “a piece of land serving as part of a clergyman’s benefice and providing income”), and the French word — spoken by a French character, without translation — cauchemar (just a nightmare, but the French gives it an ever so slightly weightier feel).

Now, the characters‘ language has likely caused readers some consternation. The book’s denizens are well-spoken in the sense of obviously intelligent and well-read. But they’re also — again — modern, worldly, “sophisticated” and mostly young people. (I almost added “for chrissake” there, but you get the point.) They swear like ill-tempered drill sergeants. I don’t know the page number for sure, since I read it on a Kindle, but somewhere around page 15 of the total 400-some pages you’ll hit your first “f-bomb”:

He shoved his way even deeper in, brushing up against who knew what toxic flora. A case of poison fucking ivy, that’s all he needed now.

As here, the word almost never refers to sexual activity, but is almost always an intensive: so-and-so is a fuck-up, the situation is fucked up, this one is fucking stupid and that one is fucking brilliant. Needless to say, you can expect to encounter a lot of hells, damns, shits, and so on as well. If you’re a reader feeling greatly distressed by any of this, then yeah: look elsewhere.

Finally, a few words about the “feel” of the book:

The book falls roughly into two halves: everything leading up to the Brakebills “graduation ceremony,” and everything which follows. Readers (I would guess) fall into two camps: those who prefer the first half, and those who prefer the second. They’re almost (almost) two different books, written by two different authors. The pace of the first half struck me as more measured: not exactly stately, but — maybe because of the setting, mostly “just” school after all — but more careful. We encounter some astonishing things, of course, but they occur to characters whose intentions and personalities we need to be introduced to at the same time.

The second half, a big, big contrast: a lot happens. I mean, a LOT — verging on too much. It was almost as though Grossman wanted to prove himself an author of plot more than an author of character. The characters get to encounter and use (and become the victims of) much, much more magic than they ever experienced when at Brakebills. I have told people that if the “feel” of the two halves had been switched, I’d never have finished The Magicians — or even gotten to the second, more thoughtful half.

That may be an exaggeration. I did like the novel quite a lot, and look forward to reading the second book in the series. I just hope that the tone is spread more evenly: we have a lot more to learn not just about what magic can do, but what goes on in the heads of the title’s magicians.

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