This Ain't Harry Potter or Narnia, Kids: A Review of "The Magicians"

In my last review, I had a chance to wonder how magic might work in the real world and there were some pretty low-key but realistic ways that magic might really exist. In The Magicians by Lev Grossman there’s a more traditional fantasy take on magic set in the modern world.

The novel follows Quentin Coldwater, a high school senior who’s still fascinated by a series of children’s fantasy books set in the mythical land of Fillory. He’s the fictional equivalent of the person disillusioned with real life, who wishes that owl would show up with his letter to Hogwarts, or the back of his closet would give him access to Narnia. Except in this world, Quentin gets his wish. On his way to an interview for college, he winds up accepting a mysterious manila envelope with his name on it and chasing a scrap of paper into a garden that is oddly bigger than it appears. The garden doesn’t lead him to his Fillory paradise; instead it takes him to upstate New York and a school for the magically inclined called Brakebills College. He gains acceptance to the college and embarks on a five year journey to become a practitioner of real magic. And upon graduation he and his fellow magicians stumble upon a real way to get to Fillory—where all is not as the children’s books had led them to believe and they must defeat a great evil, not just to save Fillory, but also to prevent it from escaping into our world (as great evil is wont to do).

First of all, the whole premise of the novel is wonderful. And that’s mostly because it brought back memories of wishing I could adventure in Narnia if I just found the right spot hiding that secret entrance. Oh, and, upon beginning the Harry Potter series hoping they had some adult continuing education program I could get a letter of acceptance for at any time. I was surprised that the novel covered Quentin’s time in college so quickly—all five years are expedited and handled in the first book. If you’re coming off Harry Potter expecting this to cover a school year per book it’s not going to happen. The other surprise was some of the adult subject matter: sex, drinking, drugs, and (in the later part of the book) it’s a lot more bloody than Harry Potter ever was.

But it all works. Comparisons have been made to Harry Potter and also to the Narnia novels. The similarity to Harry Potter is that it takes place in a school setting (and that’s only for part of the book) and instead of Quidditch they have a competitive game called Welters. The comparisons to Narnia would be in references to the Fillory books that everyone has read. There are four sibilings who get transported off to Fillory for adventure and then return home; and instead of discovering the entranced to Narnia at the back of a wardrobe, they discover it via the inside of a grandfather clock. Fillory even has anthropomorphic animals (my favorite being an alcoholic bear!). Aside from those slight similarities, this is very much its own novel.

If you liked either the Harry Potter or Narnia novels, but are looking for something a little more “adult,” this would be a good read for you. My only nitpicky things are that while I think getting Quentin and his cohorts through Brakebills at such a quick pace helps it step away from the Harry Potter comparisons, I can’t help feel like I missed some of the story by not being able to see more of their studies. And their time in Fillory didn’t last as long as I would have liked. But those are just minor quibbles for me; the story was too enjoyable to let them get in the way. And I have to give Mr. Grossman major points for working in Fireball and Magic Missile! I hope that the sequel The Magician King (which came out last summer) will show more adventure in Fillory and I have a feeling that will be one of the next books I’ll be reading.

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