* * * WARNING: This review contains spoilers. * * *
Lev Grossman’s The Magicians begins as a seeming riff on both The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter, taking off on the premise that there is not only a hidden world of magic existing simultaneously in this world alongside unsuspecting “muggles,” but advanced magic can also open doorways between dimensions leading to other worlds.
The novel’s protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, has grown up with the childhood fantasy of visiting, what he believes, is an imaginary world – the mythical world of Fillory, which Grossman consciously parallels with Narnia. Eventually, Quentin winds up in the position of having his wildest dreams come true, although this dream more accurately resembles a nightmare. Grossman’s tale, however, is not a self-conscious spoof nor an unconscious cliché. Rather, he pays intentional homage to the fantasy genre and provides an insightful literary glimpse into the very conventions of the genre itself.
Grossman begins with a simple enough premise, asking “what if magic were real?” But the commentary his tale begins to make echoes uncomfortably familiar to geek culture itself. As Quentin is accepted into “magic school,” he becomes so immersed in the world of magic that he leaves, more and more, the “real world,” behind beginning with his “muggle” friends and including even his parents.
After his graduation, Quentin and his other former classmates seem lost in the real world, searching for some purpose to drive the rest of their adult lives. Unable to uncover this, they become ever more lost in their “fantasy” world, to the point where Quentin looses touch with even himself – and not so much to magic, but rather to this sense of ultimate meaninglessness. After experiencing his childhood dream-come-true, becoming a real-life magician, Quentin discovers there’s not actually much point to knowing magic. The real world isn’t Harry Potter or an episode of The Avengers. Without a super villain to fight or some mission to fulfill, there seems to be no purpose to any of it at all.
Quentin eventually finds a sense of purpose when a fellow former classmate discovers that the magical world of Fillory is real. And so Quentin and his other classmates journey to Fillory. But rather than a magical world of unending adventure, they discover Fillory’s wonders are not quite like reading a book. The terrors are real and so is the danger. And behind it all is the “super villain” Martin Chatwin, the now grown-up child-hero of several of the Fillory books.
Although the classmates succeed in dealing with the threat, it is not without tremendous cost, and Quentin discovers he would rather leave behind the world of magic altogether, living out the rest of his days as a “muggle” with a boring office job that demands little of his imagination.
Throughout the novel, Grossman appears, ironically, to be writing his way toward the conclusion that magic and fantasy are things that belong to the realm of childhood and that growing up means taking one’s head out of the clouds and living in the “real world.”
I say “ironic” partly because that is what us geeks are perpetually being accused of – needing desperately to “grow up.” And Grossman skillfully drives this home by both acknowledging that the ability to do magic requires one to be extremely gifted – a genius especially in the realm of the imagination – and simultaneously demonstrates that that same genius seems to render the adept incapable of living in the ordinary world. This is a plight many a geek could likely relate to.
I also say “ironic” because Grossman seems to so embody in his writing such a familiarity with the very world he appears to be criticizing that it can only point to his own “geekily” immersed core.
And I have to say that I found myself so taken with his genuine examination of geek culture that I was very disappointed when Grossman appeared to wind up his story in support of the idea that one should give up the world of magic and imagination in favor of the boring, grown-up office job.
However, in the final scene, Grossman rescues this idea when Quentin’s surviving classmates convince him to return to Fillory, which is a conclusion that I am at one level happy with because Grossman continues to emphasize magic and imagination as important elements of human existence. But on the other hand, the ending also left me a bit unsatisfied, mostly because Grossman never really seems to answer the questions he so insightfully raises.
The entire novel reads like an existential crisis, and as a woman who often finds herself asking, “What is the point of it all?” this is something I can relate to. And Grossman irrefutably drives home the point that being human requires the need to discover some sense of meaning and purpose. But, as is true in real life as in fiction, he never quite arrives at an answer to his existential dilemma.
So, even though I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Magicians, and highly recommend it as a read, I also think it’s worth mentioning that the ending left me feeling a bit sad and empty and with unrequited longing for some kind of more concrete resolution.
But then, again, I guess that is what the sequels are for. 🙂 I will just have to read on in order to discover if Grossman does indeed resolve the “crisis” of existence that he presents in this first novel of the series.