“Sooner or later magic always leads to evil. Once you see that you’ll see how to forgive yourself. It will get easier. I promise you.”
That bit of advice is shared with Quentin Coldwater, the 17-year-old hero of Lev Grossman’s latest novel of dark fantasy, The Magicians. Although this advice comes towards the very end of the novel, the statement rings true throughout everything Quentin experiences from page 1. This awkward teen lives in Brooklyn and is trying to find a college that will match his future goals. After a College interview appointment goes badly wrong - the person he was supposed to interview with turns up dead in his apartment - Quentin finds his reality turned literally upside-down as he is transported to Brakebills.
Brakebills is a school for magic and wizardry, but that is where the comparisons to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series end. This is very much an American version of Hogwarts settled somewhere in upstate New York, and the students at Brakebills are not nearly as enthusiastic and engaging as Harry & Co. They are dealing with the standard concerns of any American college student, and their sentiments echo those of typical college students today.
At Brakebills, Quentin learns how to harness his magical powers, falls into friendship with a group of like-minded teens, and falls in love with a fellow student, the highly talented Alice. The plot moves between classes, student interaction and a sojourn to the Brakebills campus located in the Russian arctic region. Like many college students today, Quentin and his friends find post-graduate life to be less than stimulating, and a group of them end up leading a rather lethargic lifestyle in a Manhattan apartment.
The story takes a serious turn when one of Quentin’s fellow students, Penny, finds a magic button that allows for transportation into other dimensions. More specifically, they are able to transport into the fictional land of Fillory, a land very similar to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, and the series of Fillory books written by Christopher Plover are a personal favorite of Quentin and his friends. When Penny announces that Fillory is real and that they can all visit this ‘fictional’ land, the group jumps at the opportunity.
But to say that Fillory is a dangerous realm is a serious understatement. Quentin and his compatriots soon discover that the talking animals and other mythical creatures they encounter are not exactly benevolent, and their lives are soon in peril in the midst of an age-old battle between the powers of good and evil in Fillory. Tragedy ensues quickly, and not all of Quentin’s group will survive the jaunt to the land of their childhood imaginations.
Lev Grossman very obviously takes elements from C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, and even J.R.R. Tolkien with his creation of The Magicians. He also draws on personal experience for the background of the novel - he is a resident of Brooklyn, NY, who publishes a blog about geek culture called Nerd World. The first two-thirds of the novel engages the reader with its darker, more adult Harry Potter-style story. The last third of the novel moves a little too quickly into a Narnia-like story-line, which is not nearly as engaging as the young magician/coming-of-age tale it starts out as. Grossman has definitely created an original and engaging read but with an ending that is slightly lackluster.