The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a curious fantasy novel, in that it is almost the anti-fantasy novel. The style is the fantasy-equivalent to literary Realism (capital R). Despite the fanciful creatures and mysterious worlds, The Magicians approaches magic in a “business-as-usual” manner. The main character, Quentin Coldwater, embarks on a bizarre coming-of-age experience in which magic (discovered in a Harry Potter-like revelatory manner) turns out to be a fantastic opportunity, a terrible burden, an adventure, a curse, and – ultimately – just another part of life (believe it or not!).
A magical anti-hero (Holden Caulfield is the obvious equivalent, but I won’t go that far) is a breath of fresh air. Grossman develops Quentin in such a way as to make him truly identifiable (if irritatingly recognizable) to all of us. The story begins with Quentin finishing high school and ends approximately 6 years later, after graduating from a magical university and experiencing a few years of life – both magical and non-magical. That Quentin is self-loathing, doubtful, angsty, confused, sexual, cowardly, jealous, and truly human in every way, he becomes a character which readers can really believe (though not necessarily believe in). I enjoyed this break from tradition – that there were no real heroes, no “pure” characters, always noble and able. Everyone was flawed, and everyone was just out there, trying to make it through – sometimes with a little help from their equally troubled and normal (as normal as a witch/wizard can get) friends. I also particularly appreciated the inclusion of gay & lesbian characters in this novel – and not in an ambiguous, alluded-to fashion. Orson Scott Card may be the only other Sci-Fi/Fantasy author I’ve read who has included homosexuality in his fantasy fiction – it’s typically a stigma, an unwelcome intrusion into the dream-world of tough, manly heroes and damsels in distress. Unlike Card, however, Grossman doesn’t seem to be making moral judgments on homosexuality. He simply includes gay characters because gay people exist. This goes back to my point that this novel is just so brilliantly realistic for a fantasy novel (side-note, having the majority of the novel take place in Brooklyn and upstate New York also lends much to the realistic aspect of this story). I also enjoyed the ending quite a bit. This may get into spoiler territory – but, let’s just say, Grossman has a lot to say about the “belief” in magic and fantasy. At times, you wonder where the author is headed – he almost seems to be mocking fantasy stories and the hopeless part of all of us, where we just can’t seem to let go to certain superstitions, certain childish dreams and expectations. Near the end, you get the feeling that the moral of the story is that, to truly be happy, successful, and functional, you must give up these infantile fantasies and get on with living a focused, purposeful life. Thankfully, this was not Grossman’s final message. Instead, he leaves us with a feeling that the point to life is to just learn to be you. You will make mistakes, you have to forgive yourself. Your friends will sometimes do stupid things, hurt or betray you, but you have to forgive them. And, when it comes down to it, you have to hold onto that magic – that part of you that is only you – and never let anyone force you to believe you should or could do better without it.
Grossman bit off quite a bit with this novel. The story spans six years – university years, which are really the longest years of our lives. It covers so much – relationships, education, adventure, growth, self-discovery, romance. I found myself, many times, wondering how a year of school could possibly have just passed in as few as 50 pages. Major characters graduate a year ahead of the main character, and new characters are brought in – yet that following year goes by in a few flips of the page. It was disconcerting to move this quickly – and though the book was split into four parts, and many chapters, the sectioning didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. I believe I would have much preferred that either this book be much longer, or be split into two or three novel-length pieces. Characterization suffered, character development suffered, and the plot suffered. There was just too much happening, without enough attention paid to most of it. I also didn’t appreciate the reasoning behind what made the SPOILER ALERT antagonist evil. The revelation is made near the end of the novel, by a third-party, and is tossed out in such an off-handed manner as almost to make it seem inconsequential. Yet, this is the crux of the “evil” in the novel and 1) the social issue being addressed in this moment is far too great to mention so vapidly 2) that the “bad guy” would have turned so bad for such a reason as was given (re: P. 381, for those reading the novel, or who have read and wish to remind themselves of what I’m referencing) seems to me not just a cop-out, but a dangerous one.
The Final Verdict 4.0 out of 5.0
When all was said and done, I really did enjoy this novel. I was surprised by much in this novel – even caught off guard at certain points (which doesn’t happen often enough anymore). I loved that Grossman took risks by twisting the fantasy traditions and bringing the story into something much more realistic and identifiable, yet allowing the fantasy to remain important and, ultimately, the attainable goal. The source of happiness – the “treasure” of the main character’s self-discovery. I was bothered by the skirting of so many issues, so many plot lines, and so much time/so many events – more than could possibly be managed in a 400 page novel. And I was disturbed by some of the handling of more sensitive issues in the book. Still, I applaud this author for including those issues, for standing by them throughout the novel and making them seem as if they were just “part of the norm” – because they are. Grossman makes the case that all points of view and all types of people are relevant to and should be included in the fantasy genre. The language was biting, the story engaging – and, had more time/depth been devoted to these characters and their stories – the novel would certainly have then earned a 5 out of 5.