Considering how many “schooling” options there are IRL—you can get a certificate in everything from beer judgment to survivalism—it’s surprising there isn’t more magical education in fiction. Hogwarts, of course, and “Magic School” on Charmed (really, Charmed? we couldn’t have stretched on the naming a bit?) There’s apparently a magic school in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and I would argue that enough shit went down at that high school in The Craft that it should qualify.
But by and large, the world of magical schooling was conquered, nay, slayed, by J.K. Rowling. Her blockbuster Harry Potter series—estimated book sales: 7 jillion to date—has made the entire genre feel prematurely old hat. (Old…Sorting Hat, if you will.) For Lev Grossman, journalist and author of otherwise innocuously plotted literary fiction, to conjure up Brakebills, the magical school slash origin story of Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, was a bold stare into the eyes of potential obscurity.
In The Magicians, the first book in the series (recently made into a SyFy show), Quentin Coldwater, a disaffected Brooklyn teenager obsessed with the Fillory novels of his youth (think Narnia), discovers that there is something more to this provincial life when he’s invited to join Brakebills, a secret and magically hidden magic school in upstate New York. It is there that Quentin meets Alice, Janet, Eliot, Josh and Penny, who become his friends and compatriots on a quest involving inter-dimensional travel and magic buttons.
Where Harry Potter (the person) was almost annoyingly likable from Rowling’s first pages (to be fair, Hitler would have seemed likable compared to the Dursleys) Quentin is throughout The Magicians something of a little bitch. He suffers from what my grandfather would call “a general malaise,” (as in “no I’m not coming to Thanksgiving; I have a malaise”) and is so cloyingly dissatisfied with the everyday that you’re almost resentful when he finally does, through a loopy sequence reminiscent of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, stumble upon Brakebills, the Hogwarts of the Hudson Valley. In the long run though, Quentin’s bountiful flaws, and the flaws of all of Grossman’s characters, are what separate The Magicians from the Harry Potter novels, and ultimately what makes these books compelling fiction for even fantasy-averse adults.”I wrote fiction for 17 years before I found out I was a fantasy novelist,” Grossman wrote in a 2014 essay for the New York Times.
To be sure, The Magicians has all the flair and color of a proper fantasy novel, but it is at the intersection of a magical world and a pragmatic, mundane one where the novel excels. The magic of Brakebills is not all flamboyant gestures and spontaneous proclamations; it’s a tedious and persnickety craft that requires enormous amounts of memorization and concentration, to say nothing of years of practice. There are no Every Flavor Beans here; there is no Butterbeer. Even wands, the fateful tool around which young Potter shapes his wizarding life, are in this world passé.
Grossman’s sometimes joyless approach to magic might seem like a literary disadvantage; after all, what is Hogwarts without the wind-whipped excitement of a Quidditch match, or the novelty of animal-driven mail delivery? But because The Magicians’ circumstances are more subdued, and its characters so overtly flawed, the book feels on the whole more adult, and more sophisticated than its YA peers. Likewise, the implications of a magical world—where unanswerable questions breed fear as much as wonder, and right and wrong are more complex than He Who Shall Not Be Named—feel more at home here. Magic is a powerful thing, with untapped reserves of unexplored power. That kind of power goes deeper than Avada Kedavra.
TITLE: The Magicians
AUTHOR: Lev Grossman
PAGES: 432 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Codex, the other Magicians books
SORTA LIKE: Harry Potter meets The Interestings
FIRST LINE: “Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.”