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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Not Harry Potter, not Narnia

Published: January 22, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

Part tribute and part bitter criticism, Lev Grossman’s novel “The Magicians” reads as a commentary on the fantasy books that bewitched us as children, in the process stripping them of their magic. Unfortunately, this tale does not stand on its own because the author has focused more on defining what the novel is not—it is neither “Harry Potter” nor “The Chronicles of Narnia”—and less on creating a unique world of his own.

After being accepted to a college for magic, Quentin Coldwater’s deepest wish has come true. The magic he read about in the Fillory books, where a child escapes to an enchanted world through a grandfather clock, is real. But the world he becomes a part of is more dangerous and sinister than it first appears.

Quentin is not a likeable character. He is selfish and depressing. He mopes around most of the book, even when he is given practically everything he desires. However, this is what Grossman does particularly well, which is the most compelling aspect of the novel. The author poses the question: what constitutes happiness? In a world where magic exists, where dreams literally come true, would happiness be an easier emotion to experience and sustain?

Through his magical studies, and the incidents that come with growing up, like sex, drugs, and drinking (this is definitely not Harry Potter), Quentin persistently grapples with this dilemma. “He had painstakingly assembled all the ingredients of happiness. He had performed all the necessary rituals, spoken the words, lit the candles, made the sacrifices. But happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come.” It is Quentin’s struggle to produce happiness, to find happiness, to even define happiness that engages the reader, not his supernatural schooling or the adventures he encounters.

“The Magicians”’s failure comes from its inability to separate itself from J.K. Rowling’s or C.S. Lewis’s creations because Grossman’s world depends on the fact that it is neither. He constantly compares Quentin’s world with Fillory, a world of talking animals and amazing quests that exists in a book series that many of the novel’s characters were obsessed with as children. Grossman’s Fillory is clearly a placeholder for Hogwarts or Narnia. Often he would preface a description with “This wasn’t Fillory,” emphasizing his point that if magic and magicians existed in the real world it would not be used to battle evil or talk to furry woodland creatures.

Unlike Hogwarts, where students would perform spells with a magic wand, at Brakebills learning magic is a series of dull tasks. Quentin complains that “it turned out to be about as tedious as it was possible for the study of powerful and mysterious forces to be.” Studying magic for Brakebills’s students is more like memorizing flashcards and doing practice tests for the SATs than an exciting adventure.

The author’s efforts to distance Quentin’s ‘real’ world with the pre-existing fantasies that exist in literature have stripped his imagined creation of any magic. This may be his point, but it is a blunt one that he makes over and over again, sacrificing the chance to explore his world for lambasting Rowling’s and Lewis’s worlds.

At 500 pages, “The Magicians” might not be worth the time it takes to read it. If you are sick of “Harry Potter” and want a more adult approach to magic, though, pick up a copy and give it a shot. “The Magicians” cannot stand on its own, but glimpses of original ideas make some parts entertaining and hint at a talent that does not need magic to support it.