Whenever a series gets compared, in any way, to the Harry Potter series, I get nervous about it. I mean, Harry was a huge part of my life and that series holds a specific and unimpeachable place in the pantheon of literature. It has also become a go-to “we’ll sure get them to read THIS book” marketing ploy. I’ve never trusted book-marketing-people all that much but the minute “the next Harry Potter” started to be a thing, I started to tune out.
The Magicians, however, had something else about it that struck me. Maybe its because – for all of the “American Harry Potter” and “this is to Harry Potter what strong whiskey is to weak tea” rhetoric – I wasn’t ever convinced by what I’d read. Honestly, it seemed more Narnia-esque than Potter-esque from the back cover description. Of course, Narnia is the precursor to Potter, isn’t it? Well, anyway, this book was defying the categorizations I was attempting to get away from it with and so, finally, I let my actually-really-strong desire to read it take over. Plus, coming off a string of rather serious and rather realistic (for the most part) novels, I wanted something that would be a bit more escapism. While I certainly got that, I also got something else I wasn’t expecting – I got the post-graduate novel I’d hoped The Mysteries of Pittsburgh would be.
Quentin, the main character, ends up a student at Brakebills College of Magical Pedagogy. Much like we all wished we’d get that owl on our 11th birthday, I started thinking about how great it would have been to stumble into the entrance exam for Brakebills. So right away, yes, I see the Potter connection – but you’ve also got me hooked. This isn’t about innate magic springing to life at age 11 – this is something else. There’s a test. There are standards. There is a distinctly Ivy League feel to this whole shebang and I love it.
So, Q gets in and learns and makes friends and enemies and stuff happens… and his (four-year) term is over in about a hundred and seventy-five pages. Yes, that’s correct(ish). Suddenly he’s out in the real world and there’s that post-graduatory ennui striking him and there’s lots of drinking and drugs and parties and screwing and breakups and makeups and all that. And while this was obviously a bit, you know, more than what’s happening with any of us in the Class of 2010…. it just felt right. Grossman was conveying it perfectly, what it feels like to have just graduated and be a little unmoored. Hell, they move to New York, too!
Actually, all of the emotion was spectacularly captured. Without spoiling too much (because as predictable as it is, its still crushing), the ‘heartbreak warfare’ (yeah, I went there, deal with it) that two characters undergo… The way Quentin feels and acts is how human beings act. It’s how I’ve acted, it’s how you’ve probably acted. Its not ridiculous, its not “oh, he has no right to feel that way” – he knows that he ‘has no right’ and yet he still feels that way. That’s how it happens! That’s what its like to be a human being – and Grossman captured that so perfectly. I’ve felt exactly that way before and will probably feel it again. What it is to be in love and to hurt somebody you love and to try to figure out what to do and to plan to say one thing and then the smartass mean remark pops out instead…… reality infuses this book about magic. That’s the best part.
The Narnia-esque qualities of Fillory are a little strained. I mean, seriously – the parallels were so painfully obvious and I can’t remember any reference to Narnia, despite numerous Potter references (oh, I really wanted those European schools to remain ambiguous so one could juuuust vaguely pretend… sigh…), that I just felt like it was a copout, in a way. I mean, Fillory seems cool and I loved the twist at the end (The Beast – the image of him, with the branch in front of his face, is so creepy and scary and I love it)… but man, there was just a tinge of unoriginality there in an otherwise fresh take on the genre.
I also loved the ending. It was sad and it was tough and yet it struck the right notes the whole way. I can’t wait for the imminent (well… a year or so away) sequel. May this extend into a long-ish and fruitful series.
Rating: 5 out of 5. This book struck me and stuck to me and made me whole inside in a way that books rarely tend to do anymore… I couldn’t give it anything else. I was, yes, reminded of the first time I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. That hope that, deep down, magic exists… and that realism without being “gritty” or “edgy” was so nice. This book connected with me the same way Potter did. Like I said, I hope this becomes a series and I can grow with it towards middle age (Potter was childhood, obviously). I cannot say enough good things – power on, Grossman!