Beyond Harry, Oz, and Narnia: Lev Grossman’s The Magicians

November 16, 2010 | 2 books mentioned 2 4 min read

coverWhen Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians first came out in summer 2009, I read a plot summary and scoffed. A young man gets tapped for having magical abilities and ends up at an elite boarding school where they teach him wizardry (though that specific term does not show up in the book). Sound familiar? Not only did I have zero interest in reading it, I actually felt surprised that Grossman—the Time book critic—could have gotten away with publishing such a Rowling rip-off.

I was wrong. But I wouldn’t say The Magicians is completely different from the Harry Potter series. There are many similarities, right down to specific plot devices and elements of the school, but Grossman gets by because he makes no secret of the influence. The characters in The Magicians fully acknowledge the existence of the Potter books, which, if anything, makes the realm of the novel feel all the more realistic. Its young people live in the same modern world (the protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is from Brooklyn) that we do. What happens to them, though certainly a farfetched fantasy, seems more plausible than any of the books that have preceded Grossman’s and from which he takes a great deal.

Just like at Hogwarts, Brakebills (a magical college in this case, as opposed to a boarding school) has a grand dining hall, a series of loony professors, and a protection spell around its perimeter to keep out those pesky non-magical peeps. It even has its own version of Quidditch, a far more boring game called Welters, a kind of life-sized chess. Just like the Potter gang (Harry, Ron and Hermione), Grossman’s has the token smart girl (Alice, with whom Quentin starts an important and moving relationship) and an orphan (Eliot, who has been disowned by his parents and spends holiday breaks at school or with friends, like Harry does).

The parallels continue. When an evil being invades a class, freezes time, and kills a girl, it’s hard not to think of a Harry Potter scene in which a girl almost dies after handling a bewitched necklace. In the magical land of Fillory—which occupies the second half of the novel—a scene with a stag drinking at the edge of a lake bears close resemblance to the stag that represents Harry’s Patronus animal.

Yet all of this almost doesn’t matter, because what makes Grossman’s novel terrific and definitively fresh is its tone and style. His dialogue is edgy and captures the banter of angsty teens better than Britishisms like “Dunno, Ron” ever could. His scenes are bold (in a treehouse of sorts, peering up from under a trap door, Quentin spies his friend Eliot on his knees in front of another boy). And the most crucial set pieces are original and utterly engaging (two come to mind—a stretch in which the students become geese and fly to Antarctica, and another, while there, in which they become foxes and give in to base animal instincts).

Then, of course, the difference that seems most touted in reviews of the novel: Quentin Coldwater is no Harry Potter. And that’s meant in the best way possible. He’s bitter, introverted, and lazy. He’s skeptical, untrusting, and unhappy. That sense of withdrawal has annoyed some reviewers (Michael Agger, in a mixed review in the Times, complains that the characters “mope about”), but to me, it’s far easier to buy a reticent hero just as confused by this world as we are than a bright-eyed superstar “boy who lived” that is truly the center of his universe. What’s alluring about Quentin is that within the magical world, he ain’t shit, and he learns that pretty quickly, and has to deal.

The final fourth of the novel lost me a bit, with overdone action scenes and a clichéd quest to regain a crown and overcome a villain. This part of the book takes place in Fillory, which is a magical world (yes, an actual magical world, not just Quentin’s world of magic at Brakebills) that the gang has all read about in a series of books that they thought were fiction, but turned out to be real.

This section of the novel hearkens back to Narnia (it is young children that first access Fillory, and their ram guide is a lot like Aslan) and Oz (Quentin and the gang must find that royal ram, and they pick up various friends along the way, and I kept thinking, “They’re off to see the Wizard”) far more than Hogwarts. But the romance between Quentin and Alice, and the biting humor in the dialogue (specifically that of Eliot and Josh) saves the book from eleventh-hour collapse.

The novel is also surprisingly emotional. When Quentin and Alice finally get physical, it’s as foxes, and they’re not completely sure what they’re doing. The scene is inventive and sexy: “He locked his teeth in the thick fur of her neck… Something crazy and urgent was going on, and there was no way to stop it, or probably there was but why would you?” And when Quentin completes a ravaging physical challenge that many of his friends did not even attempt, his professor wraps him up in a bear hug and says, “Good man. Good man. You made it. You are going home.” I was almost in tears.

The Magicians has been called “Harry Potter for adults,” and in many reviews that label has been eschewed as an oversimplification. It is, but it’s not that erroneous of a summary. The Magicians and the setting of Brakebills is a mature, brutally honest version of Rowling’s Hogwarts. For me at least, the Harry Potter books are receding into the past and my childhood, and Grossman’s version is the fantasy that the 2000s—in all of their political, economic, and interpersonal disillusionment—deserve. I’ll eagerly await the sequel.

is a magazine reporter and freelance book reviewer. He's from Boston and now lives in Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter.