Quentin Coldwater was just another gifted kid trying to impress a pretty girl by getting into an Ivy League school. His life changes when he finds himself writing an entry test at an academy for magicians. Soon, he and a group of undergrads are doing their best to get ahead of the competition. Sadly, by the end of his first year, Quentin and his friends are doing their best to act urbane about their power for lack of anything else to do.
At times, I found these urbane characters an irritating distraction from an otherwise enjoyable fantasy. Sadly, they take Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Lord of the Rings and try to turn all of them into The Great Gatsby and Interview With The Vampire. However, perhaps that’s the point: magic seems awesome, but if it doesn’t come naturally during puberty at the same time as a threat to the universe, it’s just another lot of work we have to do while figuring out what we’re “actually” supposed to do with our life.
Put another way: what’s the point of fantasy if it doesn’t offer us the chance to escape the mundane?
So readers looking for an innocent high fantasy in which quests are taken on and completed after gaining a sense of self-awareness, defeating evil, and saving the princess should probably skip The Magicians. This story refuses to attempt those things innocently.
Quite appropriately, hardly a page in The Magicians goes by without Grossman’s characters alluding to popular fantasies and then mocking what makes them “fantasies.” However, don’t mistake the characters for the author. While his characters are busy nurturing their cynical worldview in a traditionally optimistic genre, Grossman orchestrates a surprisingly “by the numbers” fantasy in which we move from training to testing to questing.
Not only is there a school for magicians, there’s also a talking bear, battle mages, and a Wonderland. I particularly enjoyed when the characters discovered that battle magic in Dungeons & Dragons has — through sheer coincidence — the fundamentals of offensive spell casting down. Another high point is the test in which Grossman’s students race from South America to the South Pole with nothing but their spells and a bag of mutton fat. Later we follow one character in his search for the “questing beast.” The questing beast is smug rather than noble, but it will grant three wishes if caught. So although Grossman’s allusions at first feel clever but mocking, they eventually build up to an impressive climax. And I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed the falling action of a novel more than I did in The Magicians.
With The Magicians, Grossman’s achievement is that he manages to satisfy all of our expectations of a high fantasy while offering a bandage of irony for the self-esteem of adult readers that are too insecure to admit that they enjoy Harry Potter novels.