"The Magicians" (Viking, 402 pages, $26.95) by Lev Grossman: So, maybe you've heard a story or two about a young wizard who harnesses his power at a school of magic. But, oh, Harry Potter fans, you haven't heard THIS one.
"The Magicians," Lev Grossman's brooding new novel, is rather unapologetically derivative of a number of familiar fantasy yarns. "Harry Potter," "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "The Lord of the Rings" series are all paid various levels of homage.
Yet, Grossman's performed a nifty trick. While he borrows heavily from fantasy's canon, he has crafted a work that is strikingly original in plot and construction.
Gritty, literate coming-of-age novels are common enough in literature. So, too, are magic and fantasy books with things like talking bears, centaurs and Renaissance spells. Grossman's feat is capably combining the two into a story you will certainly not read in the Hogwarts alumni newsletter. (Nor one that will be particularly easy to put down.)
Subbing for Harry in the role of protagonist and mage-in-training is Quentin Coldwater. A high school senior from Brooklyn, Quentin is older and quite a bit darker and more melancholy than J.K. Rowling's blockbuster creation.
The plot takes off as an odd series of events derail Quentin's interview with Princeton. Soon he is wandering through a portal to Brakebills College, an incredibly selective institution of higher learning for wizard aspirants.
Quentin first thinks he's hallucinating, then that he's stumbled into Fillory, a fictional land of magic. It's actually just a magically fortified compound on the Hudson in upstate New York. After a truly epic entrance exam, Quentin is admitted. And here's where the fun starts, right?
Well, sort of.
Quentin is a sort of postmodern wizard, and Grossman revels in exploring something like magical ennui. Despite growing up a dorky devotee of fantasy novels — particularly a series of children's books about Fillory that sound an awful lot like C.S. Lewis' Narnia — Quentin immediately evokes some Caufield-esque confusion and skepticism. This blooms throughout the novel, even as many of his boyhood fantasies — sexual and magical — become reality.
Grossman tells Quentin's story, which takes him from Brakebills back to New York for a dip into a post-college hedonistic purposelessness and on into uncharted magical realms, in a sharp, brisk voice. It is peppered with well-drawn detail that is often casually hilarious. There are clipped asides about everything from the post-game feelings in a wizard's hands after they cast a spell to the attire of cacodemons.
"The Magicians" is not, though, a feel-good story in any conventional sense. And, while it is fascinating to read about wizard teens who, you know, have real feelings and emotions and experiment with things — drinking, drugs, sex — that real teens would, it is also quite sad. Turns out, even for precocious boy wizards, there are not always happy endings.