Take Harry Potter, uproot him from Hogwarts, and drop him in Brooklyn. Add six additional years to his 11, resurrect his parents but make them indifferent, and give him a serious case of teenage angst and depression.
That just about gives you Quentin Coldwater, the sometimes-hero-sometimes-antihero of Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians.” Quentin’s world is the dark, seedy underbelly of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy–Hogwarts with sex, drugs, and a much thinner line between good and evil. The first in Grossman’s trilogy, “The Magicians” complicates magic with startlingly realistic characters who don’t always know what they want and don’t always do the right thing.
The novel’s dark nature is evidenced by its opening scene: Quentin, as yet unaware of the magical world that’s about to consume his life, is on his way to a Princeton interview with his friend James. When they arrive at the interviewer’s house, they find him dead on the floor.
His death serves as a mechanism to transport Quentin to Brakebills, a prestigious magic academy somewhere in upstate New York. He takes a grueling wizard test, passes, and winds up studying magic there for three years. Magic at Brakebills doesn’t involve wands, and its study is intense, all-consuming hard work. Quentin and his classmates memorize foreign languages, incantations, and hand motions. Each spell is cast according to “conditions:” which moon is foremost in the sky that day, which direction they’re facing, which wind is blowing from the south.
In this academic setting, Quentin makes friends, develops an enormous crush on Alice, a gifted spellcaster, and altogether escapes his old life in Brooklyn. At first he’s relieved to be at Brakebills. He’s spent his whole life waiting for something remarkable to happen, and this is finally it. Brakebills is the cure to his longing, his depression, and his disappointment in the world.
At least, until it isn’t. Eventually Quentin becomes disenchanted and begins to crave whatever comes “next.” He’s destined to be a hero, he’s sure of it. But Alice warns him about post-grad life for wizards. There’s no enormous evil to conquer. There’s no grand adventure. They’ll have to devote their lives to some beneficent cause, something like global diplomacy or the hunger crisis. Otherwise, all that awaits them is nothingness.
Grossman weaves in a thread of darkness that persists throughout the novel. At Brakebills students die, disappear, and go insane. Professors aren’t infallible or all-knowing–Some display a cool indifference toward the students that’s alarming. Grossman’s magical world is as cold and cruel as the real one, but its stakes are higher.
The book is divided into three parts; the first is spent at Brakebills, and the second is after graduation. Post-grad life is cruel to Quentin, Alice, and the rest. They move to New York City where, with nothing better to do, they party all night and sleep all day. Alcohol and drugs, the hallmarks of boredom, tie the young wizards inextricably to non-magical life.
But everything changes (again) in the third part, which takes place in a magical land called Fillory. A fellow Brakebills alum seeks out the group to reveal that the “Fillory and Further” books, which they all read as children (a Chronicles-of-Narnia-esque series in which a group of kids travels to Fillory, goes on magical adventures, and then returns to reality), are real. Fillory exists. By way of magic button, off they all go to Fillory in the name of grand adventure.
It turns out that wizardhood doesn’t qualify them for heroics. Fillory is unexpectedly brutal, and its characters are violent and strange. The young wizards are hopelessly outmatched, and flinch at the sight of gore to the point that they seem pathetic. They aren’t heroes, and they bumble their way through an adventure that’s too big for them.
As for Quentin, his longing wasn’t satisfied by Brakebills, wasn’t cured post graduation, and isn’t even squelched by Fillory–the place he’s waited his whole life to see. His disenchantment haunts him, and Alice finally calls him out for being “the asshole who can’t even be happy in Fillory.” Happiness is a choice, she says, not a magical spontaneous occurrence.
Although Quentin’s sense of under appreciation permeates “The Magicians,” the world Grossman creates is nothing short of awesome. He brings new, complicated layers to a tried-and-tested scenario, and manages to add a healthy dose of personal drama to the mix. Common threads run through greater conflicts, making the magical world believable: Neglectful parents, unrequited love, relationship drama, mental health. Each character has their own demon to deal with, and each wrestles with it in ways that show their flaws.
They’re not perfect, and neither is the magical world they inhabit. Each is real enough to be tangible, to capture the reader’s attention, and to keep it.