I loved every page of The Magicians. For anyone who grew up reading fantasy, who started with E. Nesbit or The Chronicles of Narnia or awaited each Harry Potter release, who openly or secretly continued to read fantasy as an adult, wondering if it was appropriate to still be drawn to tales of magic, this is a perfect read.
Five years ago Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke) brought magic and fairies to adult readers. The following year along came The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova), a great historical novel about Vlad, the vampire. Now, Lev Grossman brings modern magicians into a novel strictly for grownups.
Quentin Coldwater grew up in Brooklyn, gifted and always ahead of most kids his age. What else could he do besides go to Princeton and continue to be a great brain? What Quentin really wants, though, is happiness. While he found it as a youth in books of fantasy that took him away to imaginary worlds, he has never found it in life. His parents are just not that interested in him. Worse, his best friend got the girl Quentin loves. Though working hard at school has always paid off, "[he] was used to this anti-climatic feeling, where by the time youve done all the work to get something you dont even want it anymore."
Luckily (or so he thinks), Quentin literally stumbles into Brakebills, an exclusive and highly secret academy for magicians, and is accepted after passing a grueling entrance exam. He finds friends and the love of his life, Alice, but more disturbingly he learns that he has power. In the way of coming of age stories, he must discover how to control that power and use it responsibly. Heartbreak, anxiety and wonder ensue.
Grossman makes Quentins years at Brakebills entertaining, using plenty of smart and funny nods to Hogwarts and the training of magicians, as well as references to magical occurrences found in books by authors from Ward Juster to Roger Zelazny. He even creates a fictional fantasy series, Fillory and Further (see sidebar), which all the students at Brakebills grew up reading.
The plot thickens and darkens after Quentin, Alice, and a few other friends graduate, only to find themselves adrift in New York City. Imagine yourself, or your son or your niece, heading out into life with a highly-skilled degree in something arcane and trying to figure out where to fit in. Grossman gets it just right.
Quentin is a complex character with unique abilities and fatal flaws. Alice, my favorite character, has deep reserves of strength and integrity. When they and their friends get the opportunity to prove themselves as magicians, it is the authors mix of suspense, emotion and humor that propels an essentially disturbing tale. Whether the reader is 20, 40 or 60, the quandaries met and the choices made by these characters will feel real and important.
Lev Grossman writes in the voice of a clever 21st century man who has obviously thought deeply about the state of the modern world and pondered the age old question of whether it is possible to be happy. The result is a stirring investigation into the meaning and uses of magic told by a world-weary, fairly hip nerd.
This review was originally published in September 2009, and has been updated for the May 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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