The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a book with multiple layers. On one level it is the story of Quentin Coldwater. Quentin is a talented teenager who is on his way to take an entrance interview to Princeton. Quentin isn’t particularly happy with his life but it’s all in a fairly standard teenage angst sort of thing. “Why doesn’t the girl like me? , Why isn’t anything interesting happening?” When Quentin arrives at the interview location with his friend James, he finds the interviewer dead on the floor. He is handed an interview package with his name on it by one of the responding paramedics–James declines to take his package. On the way home, Quentin opens the package and finds a notebook that is titled “The Magicians” and seems to be book 6 of his favorite fantasy series–Fillory and Further. The Filory books are similar to the Narnia books and will play quite a large role in the rest of the book.
When Quentin opens the notebook a scrap of paper is caught on the wind. He pursues it into an overgrown garden and walks from fall in Brooklyn into summer, someplace else. The someplace else turns out to be the grounds of a college for magic. Quentin’s attendance at the school form the first level of the book. While Harry Potter may immediately spring to mind, the book is very different from the Potter series. The students are adults for one thing and engage in all of the activities college students do engage in. Also, the years pass fairly quickly here–instead of an intense one year per book as in the Potter series, the school years are compressed into the first half of the book. After that we get to see Quentin and some friends deal with living in the world and then on into an adventure and its aftermath. I’m not going to go into details of these as that would involve quite a few spoilers. What we do get to see is that even while seeming to get the things that he wants (magic and adventure) Quentin keeps being unhappy. Quentin makes mistakes. He isn’t perfect and neither are his friends. We also get to see Grossman building a very nice world, how magic might operate in that world and how one might go about teaching it. One student remarks that magic is hard, it’s not just making up some fake Latin phrases.
The second layer of the book really revolves around Quentin’s love of the Fillory stories and becomes a sort of meta-fictional conversation between Grossman and the reader. It is woven into the story quite well, but it speaks to what it means to be a reader of fantasy and what it would mean for someone who likes to escape into a fantasy world to actually find themselves in such a place and to discover it isn’t such an escape after all. Grossman does this quite well.
I enjoyed The Magicians quite a lot. It is a somewhat dark novel, but the darkness is leavened with humour. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel — “The Magician King.”