I’m weirdly fond of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and I can’t quite put my finger on why. It’s campy, and self-aware, and god help me I love it.
I first picked it up because I liked the look of it – one of those judge-a-book-by-its-cover situations that works out surprisingly well. Since then it’s become one of my favourites, and one of the few books that I actually reread on a regular basis.
The plot: Quentin Coldwater is a genius – at school subjects, at magic tricks, and especially when it comes to remember details about an old series of children’s books about a magical land called Fillory. He masters calculus and classic literature with an aptitude bordering on boredom – and can’t help feeling that there must be more to life than this.
And this turns out to be true; an invitation to an ivy league scholarship interview turns into an entrance exam for Brakebills Academy of magic. It’s Harry Potter and Narnia and Fillory come to life, and everything Quentin has every dreamed of – even in magic is grittier, exhausting, and more concerned with constant and mind-numbing memorisation than it is in any kid’s book. Quentin discovers there are downsides to the power and allure of magic, and that boredom can poison everything – even Fillory.
Maybe one of the best things about it – and something too often lacking from novels about young adults – is that Grossman isn’t afraid to paint his protagonist as a flawed asshole when necessary. You root for Quentin, but you aren’t afraid to hate him in places – because, true to life, he makes some believably stupid and unlikable mistakes.
It’s difficult to write a novel about a school for magic and not repeat the typical Harry Potter tropes, and yet Grossman achieves this by grounding the novel firmly in reality – warts and all. As a result, the world of The Magicians is far grittier and less forgiving than that of Hogwarts or Narnia. You’d expect the magical school story to be corny and cliche, and in some ways it is. But for the most part – surprisingly, delightfully – it’s not. I’ve always loved the imperfections of the novel’s characters, and all the true-to-life ways they fail themselves and each other.
This novel isn’t for everyone, and I’m always wary of recommending it to literature-loving friends – because it’s not high literary fare by any stretch of the imagination. But it is stupidly entertaining.
(It’s also, now, a SyFy show! And I’m going to tell you all my thoughts on that soon.)