by Terrance V. Mc Arthur
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
What if that series of fantasy books we all read when we were younger turned out to be true? What if there really was magic to learn and schools where you could learn it, and a magical land that was real…and not as nice as the books would have us believe?
In Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Quentin is a high school misfit in New York who is concerned about getting into the best college and wanting Julia, his best friend’s girl. An appointment for a university interview with someone who turns out to be dead leads to a test that becomes an offer to attend America’s college for magical arts. He used to do magic tricks, but now he is learning real magic.
It’s a college-age Hogwarts with grown-up situations. There are gay students, alcoholics, punks, Goths, sex, and death. It’s like Harry Potter meets The Paper Chase in The Chronicles of Narnia.
This is not your child’s fantasy novel. In fact, it’s more of an indictment of post-teen angst in the rich and talented, set in environments that resemble the fantasy worlds we know. This is not a book for your teen-age niece or nephew, unless they are already smoking, swearing, drinking, and having indiscriminate sex. ONE MORE TIME: This is not a book for children.
Lev Grossman is a book reviewer for Time, and he knows the literary conventions of the fantasy genre well enough to twist and bend them around his little finger. These characters swear, get drunk, are unfaithful, and stumble into a Narnia-like world that they always thought was just a fondly-remembered literary fantasy series of their childhoods, a place where their Dungeons & Dragons-based ideas of combat are turned into nasty realities that they can’t overcome by rolling the dice.
These people don’t have many redeeming features, which is why they stand out as so human. I’m tired of kid-heroes who innocently triumph over evil. Quentin & Co. make stupid mistakes, run away from danger, and triumph because they have lost their innocence.
In The Magicians, you can discover new worlds, fly with geese, trek Antarctica, and become a king or queen, knowing that the sequel, The Magician King, has already been published.
The Magician King by Lev Grossman
In 2009, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians introduced us to Quentin and his friends, students at a college for the magical arts who discover that the fantasy book series of their childhood is about a real place.
It’s a few years later, and Quentin is one of the kings and queens of the enchanted and enchanting land of Fillory. His former/new object of desire, Julia, is one of the queens, but she didn’t go to school with them at Brakebills College to become a magician. She failed the entrance test and had to learn her magic on the streets. It’s a wilder, more dangerous style of enchantment, and she went through some harrowing experiences to get it.
When a royal hunt turns into a royal disaster, the royals embark on quests that veer off in unforeseen directions. Quentin and Julia find themselves in the most undesirable place of all—on the street in front of his parents’ house in Massachusetts—and a palatial palazzo in Venice and the Underworld (which resembles a massive community recreation center) and the home of the real family that had the first adventures in Fillory.
The narrative bounces between Quentin’s quests and Julia’s backstory, requiring frequent reality (or unreality) checks along the way. As the couple keeps getting derailed into other dimensions and universes, events from the past cascade into the present, pushing heroes and the gods of the gods beyond their limits.
This is not a children’s book; there is sex and rape, extensive profanity (the young slacker kings and queens have inspired the Fillorians to frequently take the name of the Lord they’ve never known in vain), and a good deal of unpleasantness.
This is a book for grown-ups; it shows how the fantasy worlds of childhood don’t have much of a chance when the real world gets hold of them. It examines theories of magic that apply to religions and politics. It might inspire you to re-read C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, J. K. Rowling, and L. Frank Baum with a new set of sensibilities. At any rate, it will be a journey worth the taking.
Learn more about these and future books on Lev Grossman’s website.