In his third novel, Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman deftly and unabashedly walks the line between literary and genre fiction, creating a world of both fantasy and gritty psychological realism. Think J.K. Rowling meets C.S. Lewis meets Donna Tartt.
At the book’s start, high school senior Quentin Coldwater—brilliant, misunderstood and obsessed with a series of children’s books set in a magical land—is trying his hardest to escape his predictable Brooklyn adolescence. That is, until he is unexpectedly admitted to a prestigious college in upstate New York: Brakebills, the pre-eminent American institute for budding magicians. There, students slave away over potions and spells and are occasionally transformed into flocks of geese. For Quentin, this is eye-opening. His talents are nurtured, his limits pushed.
But it’s not all rainbows and broomsticks. There are also the tiny triumphs and trials of any college experience: competition, stress, sex, drugs, heartbreak and the looming uncertainty of graduation and the world beyond. Quentin and his friends move to Manhattan after finishing wizard school, where they live in a cramped apartment, get drunk, sleep with one another and wonder what good their prestigious magic education is actually doing them—and why their childhood fantasies were so off-base.
And it’s here that Grossman’s true cleverness comes into play. For, as much as The Magicians is an allegorical romp about “growing up” in a Harry Potter world (though, admittedly, with a bit more R-rated language), it is also an astute piece of criticism of the way in which literature sets up expectations that no real—or magical—world can ever live up to. Eventually, Quentin learns that the land from his books does, in fact, exist. But, like much in life, it’s not at all as he’d imagined it.
Grossman’s highly acclaimed previous novel, Codex, also asked readers to put aside preconceptions and give themselves over to a fictional world. It’s a testament to the author’s astounding creativity and delicate sensitivity that we are once again so willing to do so.