The Magicians

Lev Grossman’s novel scares me. I have two boys, and I worry about their reading books like these. The magic doesn’t bother me. The sex and violence do not bother me. What bothers me is that Grossman never resolves the question of how Quentin deals with the dark void that is his heart.

For some reason, I read a lot of fantasy novels. In some ways, I suppose I like that pristine wilderness ideal that is so prominent in these books. However, I do find the plots involving prophecies to be especially compelling, for the same reason that puzzle books (like solving Masonic mysteries or crime novels) interest me. I like the chase to figure out how the clues resolve the deeply buried secret. The Magicians has the mystery element, but the main point is how Quentin deals with the pointlessness of life.

Quentin is unhappy. He trudges to school. He is bright, but he is not as smart or popular as the two friends he hangs out [with, one] of whom is a girl he has an unrequited crush on. Quentin is depressed and because “magic” is lacking from his life. Not real magic, necessarily. Life just isn’t fanciful enough for him. It holds no wonder. He is jaded.

One day, he arrives at his college entrance interview with a Princeton alumnus only to find him dead. On the way home, he was handed a folder with a  tantalizing title of The Magicians, a heretofore unknown sixth book of a childhood favorite, the fictional Christopher Plover’s Fillory series. This is probably a Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings type of series, a seminal [book] in the character’s lives. At the same time, a slip of paper comes loose and he chases it. He chases and chases and chases, until he winds up in front of a manor house. He senses something magical, follows his guts, gives in, and enters the manor. He sits down for a test. It is the strangest test, but as it turns out, he passes. He passes by giving an extremely vibrant [display] of magic, pulling a sword from a stack of cards.

He faints and when he awakes, he finds himself that much closer to the magical world described in his favorite fantasy novel – Christopher Plover’s Fillory. [There’s] a good bit of plot, but the one thing that grabbed my attention was Quentin’s continued slide into despair. This book is a bit more serious than Harry Potter. Grossman does a great job of turning magic mundane. Which makes sense if one is born into this world; it is not in fact “magical” but somewhat… run of the mill. Magic isn’t special to a sorceror, and Grossman does his best to get the point across: in his world, magic is a learned skill. The power may in fact be particular to the student, but the actual invocation is work.  That part was nice.

However, as Quentin’s time at school drags on, we realize that his heart remains empty. Even as he has entered this world of magic, he dares ask, “Is this all there is?” In fact, that’s the theme that is never resolved in this book. Part of the appeal of the fantasy genre is escapism. As if our lives would be better if somehow we could live in a simpler time – but with magic. I have never liked this aspect of fantasy. I do not like how writers treat this world (the real one!) as something so bereft of wonder that they seek retreat into a place with literal magic. This is especially apparent in a so-called urban fantasy such as The Magicians.

Grossman plays the trick out. It is clear that Quentin is a broken boy. He yearned for something greater than the mundane world. He found it. But it isn’t a matter of the inadequacy of a wish coming true. He just is not in a position to appreciate where he is or what he has. He understands it intellectually, but he doesn’t feel it. In a way, the magic loses its luster once he realizes that, it still doesn’t answer the basic questions of what good is his magic for, what will he do when he graduates.

He finds a girl friend whose parents are magicians. She tried warning him about the purposeless lives that magicians can fall into, when they realize that their lives are not any better than a mundane’s. After graduation, Quentin falls into a life of dissipation, exactly the scenario the girl friend, Alice, wanted to avoid.

Until the characters find out that Fillory, one of the many magic worlds the students grew up reading about, is real. There is a whole second novel here, where the characters journey to Fillory and save this land from the domination of an evil king. Again, what bothered me was just that Quentin’s character remained unhappy. throughout the whole book, the character gets everything he desired, but it is still not enough. This might be Grossman’s indictment against fantasy worlds. If your heart is empty, no amount of magic will act as a salve.

At the same time, there is no resolution because Quentin did not snap out of his funk until the climactic battle and his estranged girlfriend sacrificed herself. Only after this dramatic event did Quentin come to terms with himself. But how often do we get this big reset event?That’s what worries me about this book. Life isn’t as fantastic; life is mundane and full of so-called little moments. My worry is that readers draw the wrong lesson and wait for the big dramatic event and avoid the difficult work of coming to terms with oneself.

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