[Book Review] The Magicians isn’t just about the magic

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

If I read one more review of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians that proclaims it  “Harry Potter for adults,” I just might break something. Yes, The Magicians is a bildungsroman about a teenager who discovers he’s a magician and subsequently enrolls at an exclusive magician’s college, but just because the two works share certain elements does not mean that the former is simply a matured version of the latter. (Plus, as an adult, I find the implication that Harry Potter isn’t for adults quite insulting. But I digress.) In actuality, comparing Grossman’s novel to J.K. Rowling’s series does a disservice to The Magicians. It is an inventive story that stands quite well on its own.

I am not what anyone would call a fantasy aficionado. My limited purview of the genre includes Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. Luckily for me, The Magicians fit in readily with those classic series, and paid homage to them in subtle ways. Grossman’s story is decidedly fantastic, but it doesn’t stray too far from the mainstream. His ability to balance the book for a diverse readership is one of its biggest strengths. He throws in plenty allusions to delight the fantasy buffs, but not so many that  they would alienate other readers.

The Magicians follows Quentin Coldwater, a feckless young man who chases external sources of happiness hoping to find something that will fulfill him. Quentin wishes more than anything to escape to Fillory – the mythical land from his favorite childhood novels – but what will happen if he gets the only thing he believes he wants? Grossman answers that question with a startlingly realistic portrayal of a teenager transitioning to adulthood, but with that extra addition of, of course, Quentin’s status as a  mage. He’s as confused as he is brilliant, but not even magic can help him untangle the challenges of sex, drugs, alcohol, and the dark side of fantasy.

Along with Quentin is a full cast of intriguing, albeit slightly stock, characters. The core group consists of the pitifully shy recluse Alice; the angry but brilliant punk Penny; the effeminate alcoholic Eliot; the outgoing-to-cover-her-insecurities Janet; and the undisciplined comic relief that is Josh. They’re a ragtag bunch, but a convincing quasi-family. Grossman excels at creating characters that make the readers care.

My only complaint is that Grossman pushes a little too hard about how serious and complex is his particular brand of magic. He wants you to know that it’s not the magic of Rowling or Lewis, and damn it, he’s going to prove it.

Fans of C.S. Lewis, J.R. Rowling, and J.R.R. Tolkien will appreciate Grossman’s enthralling novel. As a fan of all three, I’m certainly looking forward to diving in to Grossman’s sequel, The Magician King.

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