Quentin Coldwater is a moody and depressed seventeen-year-old on his way to an interview with a Princeton alumnus, hoping that his real life will begin when he finally starts college. These days, as a high schooler, he spends most of his time living in Fillory, a magical land that is the subject of five novels published in England in the 1930s. Fillory is altogether much more interesting than the Brooklyn he actually lives in, even if he is “ridiculously brilliant” and bound for a splendid college career.
But the interview never takes place. Instead, Quentin is handed an envelope that seems to contain the transcript of a sixth Fillory novel. When the wind snatches a note attached to it from his hands, he chases after it and find himself on the grounds of Brakebills College in upstate New York. He is invited to take an entrance exam to this extraordinary institution of learning, which teaches only one thing: magic. In Quentin’s world, magic is real and a very difficult discipline that only the very gifted can master, and then only if they have a special gift for it, much the way another student might be gifted in math or science. Quentin passes the exam before he even knows exactly what is going on, but feels he has come home when he learns that magic exists and he can learn it. He is soon studying harder and longer than he ever has before.
Most of The Magicians recounts Quentin’s college experience. Magic is completely different from anything he read about in the Fillory books; it seems mostly to be very, very hard and to demand such devotion and concentration that there is little time for anything else. Still, the students manage to eat very well and – like college students everywhere, it seems – to drink to excess with rather frightening regularity. Liaisons form among different groups of students, mostly according to their Disciplines, that is, the area of magic in which they are especially gifted. Couples form, sex happens. Through it all, Quentin remains surprisingly unhappy, still waiting for life to reach out and take him by the lapels and tell him what it wants from him. Teenagers may often be depressed, but Quentin seems to make depression into an art form.
Nor does this depression end upon graduation. As in many a coming-of-age-novel, Quentin merely becomes a depressed young adult, living with a handful of other Brakebills graduates in New York, living high on the hog (the school gives them a stipend of sorts) and doing essentially nothing. What, precisely, is the work of a magician in this world? What is the reward for all those years of study, save the study itself? One won’t figure it out by reading Quentin’s story; Quentin certainly never seems to.
One day, however, one of Quentin’s former schoolmates shows up with a magic button that will take him — and his buddies — to other worlds. And one of those worlds is Fillory.
Grossman’s compelling book is fantasy written as a mainstream novel, with none of the joy and wonder found in the usual light fantasy; the seriousness of purpose found in much high fantasy; or the action and derring-do found in contemporary urban fantasy. It is fantasy as character study, with magic seemingly just an overlooked field of study for a very smart teenager. Odd as this may seem, it was the ordinariness of magic that made this book so compelling to me. The idea that magic is simply another discipline, like English or history or biology, was very appealing to me, and I wanted very much to be in this world — a world where my braininess could make me a magician. On the other hand, it sure doesn’t seem like magicians are generally very happy people, a conclusion based not only on Quentin’s unremitting unhappiness, but on the apparent way in which grown magicians lead their lives — lives apparently devoid of purpose or meaning.
I wish that Grossman had worked out more of the consequences of this conclusion. I wanted to see more of what grown magicians did with their lives in this world, whether they meddled in the affairs of those without magic, without their knowledge; whether any of them used their gift to make the world better; whether there were those who sought to rule the world. We get none of that, and truthfully, despite my interest, I have to wonder if that isn’t for the better. This book might well have become merely another fantasy on the shelf if those kinds of questions were answered, instead of Grossman making magic seem so ordinary. At its bottom, this book is about how one man uses — or misuses, or abuses, or essentially rejects —his amazing gifts.
This book isn’t Harry Potter redone; far from it. Brakebills is not Hogwarts: there is no kindly headmaster, there is no Voldemort, and magic is not divided into black and white. To the contrary, it is as inert a tool as is a hammer, and people come in all shades of good and bad. And there is nothing particularly magical about the college itself. Staircases do not move, portraits do not speak to students, and there is no dining hall where food magically appears. It is a college like any other, except that the discipline being taught is magic.
In short, The Magicians is not a book for children, but a thoroughly adult fantasy that treats magic seriously. I would no more give this novel to my precocious ten-year-old nephew than I would offer him, say, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Though Grossman refers to many fantasy books and movies throughout his novel, this book is something different from what has come before, a merging of fantasy tropes with mainstream themes; a post-modern fantasy, if you will.