I’ve been meaning to read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians for a while, despite being burned by his sub-Da Vinci Code airport thriller Codex: how could that writer come out with something that seems so well-known in genre circles?
Well…I see it now.
It’s pretty explicitly a response to the Harry Potter series, which is in itself a commercial decision, right? Our Hero is Quentin Coldwater, a whiny teenager who is one day unexpectedly accepted into Brakebills, a sort of university for magic. Brakebills is like Hogwarts except with more sex, drugs and general nihilistic menace: at one point, a prank of Quentin’s sees a teacher’s spell go disastrously wrong, so a demon breaks in from another reality and leaves a hollowed-out husk in place of one of the students.
Quentin is very believable as an older version of Harry Potter, though: unexceptional, entitled and vastly less interesting than any of his friends. The emotional core of The Magicians is his vast sense of disappointment with the world: disappointment that his life is not more like a story. This disappointment has its foundations in a series of books he used to read as a child, about an enchanted land called Fillory, visited by four children who become Kings and Queens and…yes, Fillory is a Narnia analogue. The Fillory books have told Quentin for years that life should be simple, and authentic, and exciting; instead, he gets modernity, complex and mundane.
I mean. Yes? I think probably a lot of SFF readers have grown up like Quentin, searching for magic (for which read meaning) in a postmodern world; that’s an interesting Theme to explore. The problem is, partly, that Grossman frames Brakebills as a place of extraordinary privilege; magic stands in for wealth and power. Again, that’s an interesting move in itself, and there’s an implied critique here of the abdication of social responsibility that’s going on in the Potter books when its wizards refuse to help solve Muggle problems with magic. But it means that Quentin’s disillusionment just feels whiny and overprivileged; poor little rich kid, life is so hard. It doesn’t help that he’s standing in the way of characters who are facing genuine hardship even at Brakebills: Eliot, who is gay (or more probably bi, but Quentin hasn’t heard of bisexuality; it would probably make his mind explode, given his reaction to Eliot’s sexual orientation) in what reads as a pretty homophobic environment; Alice, whose brother died at Brakebills a few years earlier; heavily-tattooed and presumably working-class Penny. All of these people are more interesting than Quentin. Perhaps that’s the point. It’s still an unrelentingly miserable read.
Werll, all right, that’s not exactly true. The Magicians is fun on a world-building level. We get a lot of detail about the teachers and lessons and daily routine at Brakebills, which once again feels like a commercial decision: none of this is strictly necessary to what Grossman is trying to do, which is, broadly, Be Cynical About Hogwarts (to be fair, this isn’t difficult to achieve). But audiences like reading about Hogwarts, will sign up in their millions to sites like Pottermore that drip-feed pure world-building, so let’s give ’em more Hogwarts!
But it’s also endlessly, endlessly mean-spirited. There’s cynicism around every corner; everything is tainted by pettiness and rivalry and a terrible boredom eating at the edges of things. And, yeah, I can see Grossman’s point, but also he made the same point like 300 pages ago? And, really, do we still think cynicism untempered by empathy or hope is clever or constructive? Do we need to repeat the opening steps of postmodernism endlessly?
Which is to say: I have hated The Magicians and I have…not exactly loved it. Liked it, maybe. It has some moderately interesting points to make, which is vastly more than you can say for Codex. It is, however, as the Bandersnatch is fond of saying, not my favourite.