Book World: Review of 'The Magicians' by Lev Grossman

By Keith Donohue
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 1, 2009


By Lev Grossman

Viking. 402 pp. $26.95

Once upon a time, about 12 years ago, Harry Potter was born. At the height of the series's popularity, every other person on the subway, it seemed, had a big fat volume in the lap. Despite this summer's film version and two movie sequels to come, the last of the original novels has been written and the hero's fate is sealed within an epilogue. And in the darkest hours, one hears the sad refrain: Where have you gone, Harry Potter? For those who miss him still, an alternative is available in Lev Grossman's new novel.

"The Magicians" is about a boy who grows up. Quentin Coldwater is his rather Anglo name, and he lives in Brooklyn, where he is a senior in high school. He is a bright young thing, kind of a nerd, and his secret from childhood is a passionate attachment to a series of fantasy novels set in the mythical land of Fillory. As the story opens, he is on his way to an interview for a spot at Princeton. For most of us that's fantasy enough, but Quentin ends up at the far more exclusive Brakebills College of Magic, situated behind an invisible boundary somewhere on the shores of the Hudson River.

At Brakebills he is introduced to welters, a kind of chess that is the distant, yawning cousin of Hogwarts's Quidditch. He learns all about the arcane magical arts and how to cast spells. A fairly spectacular semester abroad in Antarctica is one of the book's great set pieces. And Quentin learns all about college girls. And booze. And ennui, love, sex and death. His sidekicks and rivals are versions of Harry's friends. They are brash and profane, and they smoke and do all sorts of very adult things that would get one kicked out of Hogwarts.

The first half of the novel concludes with a clever take on the problem faced by many graduates: what to do with the rest of one's life. "No one would come right out and say it, but the worldwide magical ecology was suffering from a serious imbalance: too many magicians, not enough monsters."

The monsters arrive in earnest in the second half. First among them are privileged alumni leading a dissolute life in Manhattan. Dragged into the party life by a couple of louche friends, Quentin experiences an adult moral quandary, and at precisely this moment of his deepest regret he discovers that his childhood fantasy has come true. Fillory is real.

And there in Fillory, Grossman is at his most exuberant and inventive. Situated just beyond the puzzle of the Neitherlands, the magical kingdom in the dark woods is populated with walking trees with clock faces and a talking bear who loves peach schnapps, a beautiful naiad with dire warnings, and giant hares and ferrets wielding swords and quarterstaffs. The battles -- failures and triumphs -- are dark and dangerous.

On a quest to save Fillory from an oppressive spell, Quentin and his fellow magicians move through an expressionistic landscape. One of the most remarkable passages in the novel follows the hero as he makes a solitary journey of self-discovery and learns the bitter truth about the real people who first discovered the way into an imaginary land. At the heart of "The Magicians" is the betrayal of true friendships, where the reader is left as lonely as the hero, and the novel swells to its heartbreaking ending.

Grossman, Time magazine's book critic and a frequent writer on technology, clearly has read his Potter and much more. While this story invariably echoes a whole body of romantic coming-of-age tales, Grossman's American variation is fresh and compelling. Like a jazz musician, he riffs on Potter and Narnia, but makes it his own.

Vladimir Nabokov once observed, "The truth is that great novels are great fairy tales." "The Magicians" is a great fairy tale, written for grown-ups but appealing to our most basic desires for stories to bring about some re-enchantment with the world, where monsters lurk but where a young man with a little magic may prevail.

Donohue is the author of "The Stolen Child" and "Angels of Destruction."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company