the magicians

Welcome to Hogwarts Brakebills

“Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.”

When J. K. Rowling was finishing up Harry Potter and wrapping the loose ends around one another, people began to get itchy for one more book. However, she said no and stated without any hesitation that there was not a wizarding university and that education ended at eighteen. We muttered a bit and said, “Well, OK then” and then carried on.

And then along came The Magicians by Lev Grossman, which is part “Harry Potter at university discovering sex and drugs” and part “Chronicles of Narnia with pissed-off rams”. Seriously, this is a flat out merge of two of the most famous fantasy worlds in the last sixty years. Except this is not a book for kids.

The Magicians tells the story of Quentin Coldwater, a very bright seventeen-year-old living in twenty-first century Brooklyn. He is fond of card and coin tricks, and secretly still obsessed with a series of books he read as a child called Fillory and Further by Christopher Plover, which are rather obviously the in-universe equivalent of C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Despite them being children’s books, Quentin has never got over their charm and still wishes he could enter the world of Fillory like the Chatwin siblings did, have adventures and be crowned king.

When we meet him, he is on the way to have an interview for Princeton University, but when he arrives he finds that the man who is supposed to be interviewing him is dead. While in shock, a paramedic tries to hand him a thick envelope with his name on. He takes it and before he can say “Dumbledore”, he has found himself sitting the entrance exam to a secret magical college somewhere in upstate New York.

The first half of the book then details his five years at the college, Brakebills, studying the rules of magic (it’s not all wand-waving and pseudo-Latin here; it’s deeply precise hand movements, words in every conceivable language and a knowledge of how to alter these things depending on your gender, age, how close you are to a body of water, etc, etc. As the book says, “Magic was a lot wonkier than Quentin thought it would be.”). In this world, magic is not easy – it is an exact science. At the school, however, he gathers a small clique – Eliot (the brainy but lazy alcoholic), Janet (the brusque, bossy one), Josh (not always a successful spellcaster) and Alice (the very powerful geek) – and they become as fully trained as they can.

hermy book

“There’s nothing in here about any of this.”

However, come graduation, they are flung back into the real world and find themselves living in magically hidden apartments in New York, struggling to find a purpose. And then one comes along – someone from their college days who thinks he may have found a way to magically travel inside Fillory, the land that had enchanted Quentin for so long…

The first of a trilogy, this is a great book, well-constructed and never one to get too bogged down in the details. Five years of college pass in two hundred pages and while part of me wanted to find out more about the subjects they study and the magic they learn, it still worked and I never found myself wanting it to hurry itself along. It’s quite tongue-in-cheek in places. It knows full well that it is mocking Narnia, dropping in mentions of the Fillory books having Christian overtones, and being about siblings becoming crowned in a world where, if they’re inside it, time doesn’t move outside.

It’s also very knowing about its references to Harry Potter, although curiously the books do seem to exist within the universe as they – as well as time-turners, Quidditch, Hermione Granger and even Grunnings – are mentioned by name. I think it might be touches like that that make the book work so well. It feels so solidly grounded in our universe. They are real people with real flaws, behaving in a way that one expects real magicians would behave. We all know that if we were really to give humans the ability to do magic, the planet wouldn’t last six minutes. These are some of the worst people to give the power to – they are very brainy, very lonely and very sad. Some of them want to forget, some of them want revenge. They have very human desires and wishes, and magic is just going to help them in their selfish exploits.

There are some beautiful, funny touches. The entrance exam is a particular favourite. All the papers are charmed so that if you try to cheat off someone, you won’t be able to see anything they’ve written and, it turns out, that everyone has done a different exam anyway. Questions on Quentin’s paper include basic calculus, the invention of a new language (and then the geography of the country where the language is spoken), and drawing a rabbit that won’t sit still.

The ending is not exactly unsatisfactory, but merely completely sets itself up for the sequel, which is something I will be hunting down. The third and final book is out later this year some time. All in all, if you enjoy flawed characters, urban fantasy and the thought of normal people discovering magic, or if you simply grew up on Harry Potter and still wish there was one more, this is absolutely worth a look.