Lev Grossman’s third novel, The Magicians, pulls liberally from a grab bag of very familiar fantasy tropes: the troubled boy–turned–master conjurer; the school of wizardry, hidden by spellcraft in plain sight; the sinister presence that haunts the students’ nightmares; even a sport played, tournament-style, exclusively by young mages. As the book opens, seventeen-year-old Quentin Coldwater is preparing to leave his bucolic Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood for the greener lawns of the Ivy League. He has a small circle of friends, kind but distant parents, and a GPA “higher than most people even realize it is possible for a GPA to be.”
And yet something is awry. Although Quentin has “painstakingly assembled all the ingredients of happiness . . . happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come.” On a bitter winter day, he stumbles through one of Park Slope’s myriad community gardens, past “the corpses of gladiolas, petunias, shoulder-high sunflowers, rosebushes,” and onto the campus of Brakebills College. Here, on an aging country estate, Quentin has been summoned to learn magic from an eclectic cast of master wizards. “First things first: magic is real,” the dean of Brakebills tells him shortly after his arrival. “This isn’t summer school, Quentin. This is . . . the whole shebang.”
Anyone even cursorily familiar with fantasy fiction will have a pretty good idea what happens next. Quentin struggles with his classes at first but finds he’s been endowed with the spark of a real magician; he climbs the rungs of Brakebills’s hierarchy, making friends and enemies; eventually, he finds love. Like any good mage, of course, Quentin has a birthright—a crown to wear, a monster to vanquish. The latter dwells in Fillory, the land depicted in the novels of a fictional writer named Christopher Plover. For years, Quentin has used Plover’s work to rid himself of reality; the books were a place “he went when he couldn’t face the real world.” Now, alongside a motley crew of fellow sorcerers, he tumbles through space and time until he reaches Fillory, where “bugs and bulls, nymphs and witches” wage war against a beast with jaws like “huge hungry pliers.”
Grossman has a light, pleasant prose style, and he can occasionally be very funny. (Here’s one young magician dissing another: “That guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking fucking time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog.”) And many fantasy fans will agree with his assessment of what makes Plover’s novels, or any good escapist fiction, appealing. “It was almost like the Fillory books . . . were about reading itself,” Quentin thinks. “[These books] did what books always promised to do and never actually quite did: get you out, really out, of where you were and into something better.”
And yet The Magicians never quite reaches that level of transcendence. Much of the problem is tonal: Grossman has written both an adult coming-of-age tale—rife with vivid scenes of sex, drugs, and heartbreak—and a whimsical yarn about forest creatures. The subjects aren’t mutually exclusive, and yet when stirred together so haphazardly, the effect is jarring. More damaging still is the plot, which takes about 150 pages to gain any steam, surges dramatically in the book’s final third, and then peters out with a couple chapters left to go. The world of magic, in and of itself, makes a nice setting for a novel. But as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis—and probably Plover—knew, it takes much more than a monster, a quest, and a disaffected kid to “get you out, really out, of where you were and into something better.”
Matthew Shaer writes about books for the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.