Tags: Lev Grossman
Lev Grossman’s 2009 novel The Magicians introduces us to Quentin Coldwater, a star high school student in New York who is in the process of applying to the usual Ivy League schools. Despite his academic achievement and seemingly bright prospects, Quentin isn’t happy. The world seems boring and meaningless compared to the imaginary land of Fillory, a Narnia-like world described in his favorite series of children’s fantasy novels. Something is missing for Quentin, but he thinks he’s found it when he is unexpectedly accepted into Brakebills, a secret college where a select few are taught magic.
It feels vaguely like cheating to start referring to influnces this early in a review, but the fact is much time can be saved by saying that yes, Brakebills is intended to be a “realistic” magic college answer to Harry Potter’s fantasy magic children’s school. It’s true that Brakebills teaches magic, but its magic takes exhausting study to learn and, once learned, isn’t really all that wondrous. In their downtime, students don’t go on adventures, they get drunk and have tangled romances. But despite its prominence in the first novel’s marketing, offering a gritty take on Harry Potter is only a side interest, almost an afterthought, and so counterintuitively Quentin graduates midway through the trilogy’s first book and Brakebills is left in the rearview mirror.
The Magicians is really about Quentin’s search for happiness. Quentin doesn’t find it in his mundane high school world, so he goes to Brakebills. Although diverting, he doesn’t find it there either and gradutes. Living as a young magician in New York City proves even less satisfactory, so he and his friends end up looking for and finding Fillory, which even magicians don’t believe is real and therefore inevitably is. But just as Brakebills was a gritty Hogwarts, Fillory turns out to be a gritty Narnia. Rather than the storybook wonderland Quentin expects, Fillory turns out to have just as much pain and suffering as the real world.
If you’re reading this blog you’re probably acutely aware that “gritty” is nothing new and is actually getting close to the cliché stage of literary development. For some of us who have read a lot of fantasy, The Magicians‘ triumphant reception from mainstream reviewers was frustrating because they didn’t seem to know the fantasy genre is more than just Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling. Certainly that seems to be the extent to which Quentin and his friends have read fantasy: they have all read the fake-Lewis “Fillory” novels and they frequently drop references to Tolkien and Rowling, but they are absolutely shocked when the real Fillory turns out to be more China Miéville than CS Lewis. Prominent as he is in the genre, Miéville is not all that well-known outside of it, but even a familiarity with George R. R. Martin would have been a big help.
Still, it’s easy to see why The Magicians made a splash. Grossman has a keen eye for character, a gift for creating amusing yet telling anecdotes, and an ability to write a whole novel without allowing the quality of his individual sentences to decay. In other words, he’s a very good writer. Although he uses the third person, he lets Quentin’s acerbic wit seep into the narrative voice, making otherwise bland passages enjoyable. Although the story becomes very predictable once you understand what he’s up to, it’s also unusually accessible since it’s a reaction to books that have all become blockbuster movies in the last decade or so.
Unusually for a fantasy novel that crosses over to the mainstream, the main obstacle to the novel’s accessibility is not the presence of magic and monsters but the protagonist, Quentin. He’s privileged in nearly every possible way and then a few impossible ones too, but he spends the novel chronically unhappy and, worse, unwilling to exert himself to make something out of his life. He’s an inevtiably polarizing character. Some people find him infuriating and completely unsympathetic while others find in him compelling echoes of either themselves or people they’ve known. To some degree this is a testimony to Grossman’s ability to evoke an unlikeable character. It may be useful to note here that in interviews, Grossman has mentioned that Quentin is suffering from depression, and perhaps this would be obvious to someone with a bit more personal experience with it, but the text never makes this explicit (about Quentin, at least—The Magician King is completely clear that Julia and her friends suffer from depression).
While I didn’t identify much with Quentin, what pulled me through the first book was an interest in the philosophical point The Magicians seemed to be making. Brakebills is magical but not special, Fillory is even more magical but still not special, it’s just another place. Fantasy is just one tool Quentin uses to escape the existential emptiness of his life. Alcohol is another, and Grossman seemed to want to make an equivalence between alcoholism and the obsessive fantasy fan. No matter where he turns, Quentin comes up empty in his search for meaning because the problem is not in the world around him but himself. Meanwhile, his dissatisfaction has hurt himself and those around him, for although he comes through his first Fillory experience more or less physically unscathed, his friends are not so fortunate. Read this way, the first book’s seemingly happy ending is actually a very bleak one where Quentin relapses into an interest in Fillory, something he’d already found held no answer to his problems.
So far so good, I thought. The hidden world of magic and the more hidden world of Fillory have both been considered and rejected as solutions to Quentin’s crisis. Now how will Grossman build off that? The advantage of waiting for series to finish is that I could proceed directly to the sequels.
The second book is split between two viewpoint characters, Quentin again and his childhood friend Julia, who took the entrance exam for Brakebills only to be rejected. Julia proves to be a more entertaining protagonist than Quentin in that having decided what she wants—a place in the secret world of magic—she works tirelessly to get there. She claws her way up through the posers and fakers that line the fringe of the magical world until she finds a community where she fits in. Unsatisfied with the magic they know, she and her friends turn to religion. This isn’t a bad idea, since in Julia’s world gods are as real as magic and statistically speaking contact with the divine must be the number one source of meaning in human lives historically and even today. But Julia has made the same genre spectrum mistake Quentin and his better educated friends made: like the first book, The Magician King is closer to Miéville than Lewis, and that means gods are just as dangerously capricious as magic, if not more so. Since this is conceptually the same journey Quentin traveled in the first book, there’s not a lot new with Julia’s story, but it’s the best executed of Grossman’s several takes on the idea. Julia’s struggles are compelling, her achievements earned, and the ultimate disaster horrifying.
But that’s only half the book. Quentin’s half seems at first like another repeat: having found life in Fillory—surprise!—unsatisfying, Quentin decides to go on an adventure, apparently forgetting that the last time he went on an adventure it turned out to be miserable and a close friend died. This time, it turns out to be miserable and a friend—one who is, in truth, not all that close to him—dies. That might be an improved outcome, but it feels like the story is running in place. Worse, there’s an odd lack of self-awareness in the nature of the adventure. The old gods are going to take magic away from humanity in all worlds, we are told. This is likely to destroy Fillory, magical fantasyland that it is, and leave magicians on Earth stuck without powers just like the rest of us. The first question that comes to mind is: so what? What has magic ever done for Quentin other than make him miserable? What has it done for anyone? Alas, no one in a story full of contrarian characters questions the necessity to save magic. Then, it turns out that saving magic is accomplished by collecting some plot coupons in Fillory and then going Dawn Treader-style to the edge of the world to trade them in. Fair enough, but why do some Fillorian keys affect magic throughout the multiverse? How can a few puny mortals do anything to stop the old gods, portrayed as vast and remote? Why is Ember, god of Fillory, on the side of the humans rather than the gods? Wasn’t a major project of the first book to take special wonderland Fillory and demystifiy it, making it just one world in a teeming multiverse?
These questions are never answered. And really, one suspects the answer is that the author cared more about what his characters were feeling than what they were doing and why. The result is a trilogy where the characters—within each book, at least—are consistent, nuanced, and realistic, while the world around them feels arbitrary and two-dimensional. This problem becomes worse in the third book, The Magician’s Land, which has some very satisfying character moments—Quentin finally comes to terms with himself and the world, and previous side characters Eliot and Janet are rounded out in interesting ways—but whose plot starts out contrived and eventually becomes incomprehensible.
The Magician’s Land opens with Fillory once again in danger of being destroyed, this time because it just so happens that after countless centuries Fillory is nearing its destined end just a few years after the events of the previous novels. This fact is communicated through ominous portents and dire prophecies. Multiple characters ask: Why must the world end? It just does, the answer comes back. Partly the apocalypse consists of the world falling apart, things like stars falling and the moon’s orbit decaying, but there’s also an enormous battle involving all of Fillory’s magical inhabitants. Absolutely no reason is provided why this should happen. Janet, who flies around giving the reader a play-by-play account, seems to think all worlds just have to end in a battle.
What really seems to be happening is that Lev Grossman is emptying his toybox and having one last hurrah. It’s not polite to act as if we know what an author was thinking, but surely these are not books that could have been written by someone who didn’t love Narnia as a child, so he can be forgiven for wanting to have his own go at sending Fillory out with a bang just like The Last Battle. He clearly has a good time writing it, and the many readers out there who like Fillory either for its own sake or out of nostalgia are going to have a good time reading it. Dour killjoys like myself who want there to be a reason for the toy soldiers to fight are left hanging. This is just the worst manifestation of a problem that underlies the entire trilogy. Fillory is a fundamentally superficial creation, the form of Narnia without its substance. Narnia ended with a battle because it was situated within a Christian universe and therefore shared its eschatology with that of the book of Revelations. Throughout the Narnia series, Aslan leads the forces of good against evil, so of course at the climax there has to be a big battle. In Fillory, Ember and Umber are deeply ambiguous “gods” without much obvious power and even less claim to moral legitimacy, more worth fighting against than fighting for, and there’s no metaphysical villain, just an angry magician who had a bad childhood who gets disposed of in the first book.
Readers like me must simply accept that Grossman is not all that interested in cosmology, and that if we want a reply to Narnia’s underlying worldview we must turn to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which whatever its other flaws was written with an eye for philosophical rigor. The Magicians and its sequels talk about magic, keys, and gods only as stage dressing to dramatize Quentin and friends’ search for their place in the world. Taken on those terms, the final message is surprisingly mixed. After spending three books looking for meaning outside himself, Quentin finally learns to value his own feelings and emotions. The narrative makes an unusually strong allegorical connection between emotion and magic, one that renders the previous stories incomprehensible if applied at all broadly. Since most people have no ability to do magic, are they emotionless? Were the old gods trying to take away everyone’s feelings? And so on. Meanwhile, Julia, the character who seemed irrevocably scarred by her contact with a god, finds peace through…a god. And Eliot finds his purpose in Fillory, rather in contradiction to the first book’s message that Fillory was no help to anyone. If there’s a message here, it’s that different people find purpose in their lives in different ways, which is true, but also a bit tame compared to the broadsides The Magicians seemed to be taking against popular fiction.
Hopefully I’ve made it clear that there’s a lot here to like. The Magicians is a well-written if bleak fantasy that’s worth reading by anyone with a moderate tolerance for bleakness in their reading. Those who like Fillory in general or Quentin in particular should continue on to the rest of the trilogy, but everyone else can stop after the first book and feel assured they’ve gotten the message.