The Magicians by Lev Grossman (2009) 516 p.

Criticism of the Harry Potter series comes in all shapes and sizes, but the one that I felt I most agreed with was a piece by Maria Bustillos I read in The Awl a while back, which argued that:

…the general awesomeness and favoriteness of Harry Potter and his friends is mostly arbitrary, the result of the chosenness itself, rather than of effort or application. Harry Potter is just naturally fantastic at flying around on a broom and conjuring illuminated stags up out of his soul and things, Hermione Granger is just naturally the most brilliant student Hogwarts has ever seen, and so on…

..It is a horrible thing to be teaching children, that you have to be “chosen”; that the highest places in this world are gained by celestial fiat, rather than by working out how to get there yourself and then busting tail until you succeed.

A.S. Byatt, in The New York Times, said:

Auden and Tolkien wrote about the skills of inventing ”secondary worlds.” Ms. Rowling’s world is a secondary secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children’s literature — from the jolly hockey-sticks school story to Roald Dahl, from ”Star Wars” to Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper. Toni Morrison pointed out that clichés endure because they represent truths. Derivative narrative clichés work with children because they are comfortingly recognizable and immediately available to the child’s own power of fantasizing…

…Some of Ms. Rowling’s adult readers are simply reverting to the child they were when they read the Billy Bunter books, or invested Enid Blyton’s pasteboard kids with their own childish desires and hopes.

For the record, I enjoyed the Harry Potter books quite a bit, though I think they’re overrated, precisely for the reasons Bustillos and Byatt point out. The word I would use is “infantile;” despite trimmings of danger and excitement and adventure, they are ultimately about childhood fantasies and daydreams, about how great it would be to go “study” at Hogwarts. The universally-reviled saccharine epilogue of The Deathly Hallows is proof positive of this; with the threat vanquished, Harry Potter’s life becomes a sort of fuzzy, perfect daydream.

I mention all this because Lev Grossman’s brilliant novel The Magicians is often described by people as “Harry Potter for adults,” which is like describing His Dark Materials as “Narnia for adults” – I get where they’re coming from, but they’ve completely missed the point. The Magicians does more than simply draw on the inspiration of Narnia and Hogwarts and throw in some sex and violence; it’s a deconstruction and subversion of the themes at the very heart of those books. And it does so without – for lack of a better word – “blaming” them. (Indeed, he named Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix one of the ten best novels of the last decade.) Grossman knows there is nothing wrong with a childhood fantasy; The Magicians is simply a book about what happens when a child painfully outgrows those fantasies.

The Magicians centres on Quentin Coldwater, an intelligent and bookish Brooklyn teenager (and avid reader of the fictional Fillory series, a stand-in for The Chronicles of Narnia) who feels out of place and dissastisfied with his life. He discovers his potential for magic when an interview for Harvard turns into an entry exam for a secret magician’s college called Brakebills. The first indication this is something different from a Harry Potter knock-off – beyond Grossman’s more mature writing style – is the quick pace of the book; Quentin’s entire five years at Brakebills is covered in the first half of the novel, but The Magicians is perfectly paced, and this never feels inappropriate even for a reader subconsciously expecting a Rowling template.

Fantasy, by its very definition, is a genre about fantasising – about imagining, exploring and enjoying a created world for sheer escapism. Harry Potter and Narnia embrace their magical worlds whole-heartedly, danger and all, in the vein of a child’s flight of fancy. These books never question the rightness and the “reality” of their worlds; the humdrum human world becomes a distant memory. The Magicians much more honestly explores the implications of such a discovery, of leaving the world behind for something you assume will be better, and of becoming an agent of intense magical power. There is an absolutely excellent scene, about a year into Quentin’s time at Brakebills and one fifth of the way through the book, which tosses his naive fantasy out the window in one of the creepiest and most gripping passages of fiction I’ve read in some time (even before the chapter’s stunningly disturbing final sentence). You’ll certainly never look at The Son of Man the same way again.

This was the kind of disaster that Quentin thought he’d left behind the day he walked into that garden in Brooklyn. Things like this didn’t happen in Fillory: there was conflict, and even violence, but it was always heroic and ennobling, and anybody really good and important who bought it along the way came back to life at the end of the book. Now there was a rip in the corner of his perfect world, and fear and sadness were pouring in like filthy, freezing water through a busted dam. Brakebills felt less like a secret garden and more like a fortified encampment.

Much later in the novel, and in his life, he experiences violence up close for the first time:

As a teenager in Brooklyn Quentin had often imagined himself engaging in martial heroics, but after this he knew, as a cold and immutable fact, that he would do anything necessary, sacrificing whatever or whomever he had to, to avoid risking exposure to physical violence.

But The Magicians isn’t just an arty, literary genre deconstruction. Grossman is a talented creative writer, someone who was clearly drawn to fantasy in the first place in order to create the fantastic – from a fountain that shows the reflections of another fountain in another world, to an abandoned city with locked doors where one can only barely see through darkened glass at the mysterious contents, to sleeping aquatic dragons (“the largest and oldest known dragon was a colossal white who lived coiled up inside a huge freshwater aquifer under the Antarctic ice cap, and who had never once in recorded history spoken to anyone, not even its own kind.”) This is partly why it’s such a beautiful accomplishment: it deconstructs the fantasy genre while still relishing in it, and showing what it’s capable of. Despite (or perhaps because of) being a novel about how fictional worlds would not be the wonderful dream we imagine them to be, The Magicians is always fun and enjoyable to read. (Quentin is, by definition, a depressed character, but has a cynical sense of humour that prevents him from ever being unlikeable).

There is a mis-step in the ending, in just the last three pages. Grossman ends the novel on a positive note, which would have been OK if it hadn’t been quite so unexpected and at odds with the hundred or so pages prior to it (similar, in fact, to the way John Wyndham usually ended his novels). But there is a sequel, The Magician King (in which this ending would have been better inserted at the beginning), and I’m sure it will deliver.

The Magicians is a really wonderful book: at once subversive and creative, funny and sad, enjoyable and moving. It’s a novel that realistically explores the wish fulfillment stories of Harry Potter and Narnia and countless other children’s books, and instead examines what it means to have your expectations disappointed, and your concept of who you are tarnished and broken – a world where, magical or not, you’re just another unimportant fuck-up in an uncaring universe. Dazzling, magical, perceptive and masterful, The Magicians is one of the best and most important fantasy novels of the last decade.