By Lev Grossman
Having grown up one of the brightest students in a special school of bright students, Quentin is accustomed to achievements coming easily. Other than social interactions, in which Quentin regularly feels awkward and uncomfortable. Despite the clear path to success laid out before him, Quentin has that nagging feeling that there is something more waiting for him. He stumbles upon it by accident one day and unexpectedly finds himself in a magically hidden section of upstate New York sitting for the entrance exam to the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. Upon acceptance to the school, Quentin begins a rigorous course of study to learn the theory and practice behind spellcasting. However, Brakebills magic hardly resembles the magical realm of Fillory, the setting for a series of much-cherished childhood books that Quentin grew up with. Yet again, Quentin finds himself with the feeling that there must be something more than the magic that exists within the strict prescriptions of Brakebills. As his life unfolds without planning and without certainty after graduation, Quentin finds himself and a handful of Brakebills friends stuck in a daily routine that lacks purpose. That all changes when another Brakebills graduate shows up with the possibility of an adventure that just might be the solution to Quentin’s doldrums.
“The Magicians” by Lev Grossman is the first in a series of three novels describing the fictional, magical worlds of Brakebills and Fillory. Grossman expertly plays with the theme of fiction and reality, recreating the “real world” in which people long for a magical world (a la readers of Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, etc.) in a fictional story. With calculated irony, the world of Brakebills offers a meta-analysis combining human desire for purpose with interest in what is just beyond the realm of possible. Grossman references enough recent pop culture sensations, particularly Harry Potter, to make the story relatable as real life while remaining thoroughly cemented in the realm of fiction. It feels simultaneously nostalgic and adventuresome, drawing on childhood tendencies to inhabit imagination and adult needs to fulfill a purpose in the world. Grossman does this all while describing in rich detail Quentin’s experience with Brakebills. He rarely repeats himself and writes with expansive word choice, providing the reader a veritable feast of language for literary consumption. The result is a style and story that are entertaining, engaging, and fun to read.
I thoroughly enjoyed “The Magicians,” and especially the way Grossman pulls on my love of Harry Potter to relate to Quentin, the main character in the story that is also seeking the magical world of his cherished childhood book series. At the same time, he creates a world distinctly different from other fantasy realms. He builds his story out of the same themes, but departs from standard storylines and settings to create something new and unexpected. As the story neared it’s conclusion, I will admit that I was somewhat amazed and impressed that there were so many possible outcomes that I couldn’t quite predict the storyline. Well worth the read!