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Book: The Magicians

This was the book that nearly made me overcome my reticence to blog – wanting to share my thoughts on this novel and how much I enjoyed it almost roused me from my blogging slumber. Almost. Still, better late than never.

I can’t recall the last time I bought a book based solely on a single review, and a review that was incomplete as well: Kurt Busiek talked about it after he was only halfway through the book, and I knew I had to buy it. I mean, even though Busiek is most well known for his superhero comics, he knows a thing or two about magic – he wrote the wonderful Arrowsmith mini-series (alternate world First World War with magic) and he wrote The Wizard (although I’ve never read it).

The Magicians is the story of Quentin Coldwater, an extremely intelligent Brooklyn teenager who is going to a practice interview for Princeton; however, his life changes when he ends up at the entrance exam for Brakebills College of Magic, where he learns that magic is real and that he can perform magic. Quentin had always loved the Fillory series of children’s fantasy books, ‘written by Christopher Plover in England in the 1930s’ (a thinly veiled Narnia series), and now he has discovered the concept of the reality of the fantasy. The book concentrates on Quentin’s introduction to magical studies at the exclusive (only 20 students allowed each year) boarding college, hidden away from non-magical people in New York state, and the term spent at Brakebills College South (in Antarctica – a great section of the book). Along the way, there are normal student activities – relationships, drinking, cliques, magical games, sex – but all in context of magic. Then, having graduated as magicians, the question of what happens next, especially when you can effectively do anything, has a profound impact on their lives, especially one of their number arrives with a magic button that can take them to Fillory …

By the end of the first chapter, I knew I was going to like this book – the clear, elegant prose and the sense of magic evoked in the story were utterly absorbing and left me with a huge smile on my face. There is also the idea behind magic: magic is very difficult, you have to be really clever to do it, and then there is the mundanity of practising and learning required to actually succeed. This is in contrast to the Harry Potter stories, where anyone seemed to be able to do it, if they were born with it (even muppets like Crabbe and Goyle) – is this a reflection of the different nationalities and approaches? JK Rowling and the British obsession with class (‘pure bloods’ vs ‘mudbloods’) rather than Lev Grossman and the American obsession with achieving success through hard work if you have the talent. Grossman directly references the Potter novels (mentions of quidditch and Hermione’s facial magic incident), which is an interesting side note, but uses the fictional Fillory instead of Narnia, mainly because he wants to use the cast and setting in the second half of the book and subvert the notion behind the original fantasy world.

This isn’t ‘Harry Potter for adults’ – that’s just silly soundbyte shorthand – but a coming of age novel that loves fantasy but imagines what happens when there is an adolescent/older sensibility involved. There is intelligent thinking of what magic is and what it can do, there is humour and there is darkness. Grossman has a strong voice of his own in which he feels completely confident telling his story – I love that sensation of reading something new from a relatively new author that feels like he’s been writing like that for ages. I was absorbed throughout – I read this on my commute and was disheartened when I heard the tube announcement that I was arriving at my destination – even with the more thoughtful ending, which has ramifications for our protagonist after the adventures he undertakes (which is how it should be – someone should be changed by the trials of the journey of a story). I probably annoyed my girlfriend going on about it before I lent it to her, for which I can only apologise – I really enjoyed this book and wanted to share it. Highly recommended.

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