Okay, let me get this off my chest first – and trust me, the reference is almost obligatory when reviewing this book. It’s not that I dislike JK Rowling and Harry Potter per se. Despite her opposition to Scottish independence I’m sure she deserves some credit for enticing legions of kids to pick up books. And I’ve been assured that the later books in the series are rather ‘dark’, although having seen the final movies I can only assume this means dark in the same sense as a particularly upsetting episode of Scooby Doo. It’s just that something really irritated me about seeing hordes of adults with their noses buried in the latest of the Hogwarts chronicles, all buoyed up and pretending to be part of some kind of reliving-our-childhood club. Just stop. They’re kid’s books. Young Adult I can handle, and even enjoy, but these are for children. Little ‘uns. Proto-humans. By wasting weeks on them (yes, it boggles my mind that it could take so long), people blocked themselves off forever from works far more fulfilling, squandering time which would never be given back.
And I was a little jealous.
Because I loved magic. I grew up immersed in everything from Pratchett’s Discworld series to the futuristic scientific magic of Asimov. Secretly I wanted in on the act but my principles, better known to others as stubbornness, got in the way. The only direction was forward, I could not risk regress in my tastes for fear of missing something new, something shiny. The urge to be part of the water-cooler conversation wasn’t strong enough to overcome my literary snobbishness until, thankfully, Lev Grossman happened.
The Magicians has garnered a lot of praise and that has inevitably been garnished with generous helpings of Potter references. It’s easy to see why. The first act of the story follows a group of unassuming yet precociously intelligent teenagers who, upon applying to various universities, find themselves spirited away to Brakebills Academy, a hidden school of magic lurking behind alchemical camouflage in the Maine countryside. Quentin Coldwater is a withdrawn prodigy, previously unaware of the very real existence of magic and wrestling with an unfortunate combination of bewilderment at his new circumstances and the general malaise toted by every discerning late teen.
Soon Quentin allies himself with a cadre of fellow gifted rejects and they begin their rigorous training in the ways of the wand (although such relics are looked upon with condescending mirth by mystical sophisticates). What follows is a warm coming of age story as Quentin comes to terms with his abilities and failings while those around him struggle to do the same and, y’know, quests happen. The usual puberty stuff.
Key to the success of The Magicians is the fiction-within-a-fiction series of Fillory novels, a Narnia-esque children’s series with which all characters in the book are intimately familiar. At first I found the books, a tale of children wandering through the looking glass to become kings and queens of a far-away realm, to be something of an irritatingly twee concept but as the plot progresses it becomes more tightly wound up with events and eventually part of The Magicians itself. Meta-fictions when done correctly can really add flavour to a story and this one is no exception, despite its saccharine ultra-Englishness feeling markedly out of step with the real novel’s more gritty consistency.
The writing itself is handled particularly well. Lev Grossman has a pretty wicked with and a wonderful way with language. His description of a “single malt Scotch that tasted like it had been decanted through the stump of an oak tree that had been killed by lightning” had me salivating at my work desk and desperately trying to identify the particular dram he was talking about. Another great surprise in The Magicians is the manner in which it effortlessly switches styles between sections. One minute you’re in pseudo-Hogwarts and the next it’s gone all Bret Easton Ellis meets Hubert Selby Jr in a magic shop. Then suddenly you’re playing D&D with Alsan. While this kind of transformation might unsettle some, I found it kept the pace up and made sure the story stayed fresh even during its inevitable periods of downtime.
With the following two books in the trilogy already loaded onto my ereader I’m totally sold on Grossman’s series. It’s the Harry Potter I never allowed myself to have but it’s also so much more. It’s a darker look at the fantasy kid-takes-on-the-world trope with the added bonus of containing an exceedingly honest, no-holds-barred look at the incredible rush and harsh dangers of young love. Whether you’re a Potter/Narnia fan, can’t stand them or just love good story-telling, go grab this one. Now.