The Magicians is, in the simplest and most dismissive terms possible, a kind of fanfiction love letter to Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia with heavy-handed touches of A Wrinkle in Time, The Wizard of Oz, Earthsea and The Once and Future King. Certainly writer Lev Grossman embraces these references and influences — not only is the first half set in a school for magic and the second half essentially set in Narnia under a different name, but the characters will casually and jokingly make references to things like Quidditch and cosplay and owl post.
Effectively, the story is that once a year, the United States’ smartest high school seniors are gathered together in secret to take a magical entrance exam for Brakebills, a post-secondary institution for magic located through a shrub somewhere in Brooklyn which brings you to school grounds that exist — for reasons never explained — a couple of months in the past (ie. when it’s summer at Brakebills, it’s fall in “real” Brooklyn). Our hero, Quentin Coldwater, gets his invitation from a mysterious paramedic who appears at the house of a recently-deceased Princeton Professor that he and his two friends, Julia and James were going to interview with.
There are other schools for other countries, but we never really find out much about them. The entrance exam is performed on “magic” paper that adapts to each test-taker. Some tests last 10 minutes, others last 3 hours and there are only 20 spots available for the freshman class. We’re told at the start that it’s desperately important to have exactly 20 people to each year, and then the book goes on to break this rule numerous times anyway without much consequence. Going back to the exam, however, some combination of magical prowess must be displayed for you to get the invitation — it’s not all good grades and Science Fair medals. In Quentin’s case it’s because he does — I’m not making this up — magic tricks. Like, card tricks and disappearing doves. What mystical after-school activities the other characters had to engage in to get the nod is made unclear. All that is clear is that some people have “it,” and others don’t. Julia, who is up til this point the love of Quentin’s life (but is unfortunately dating James), is also invited and fails for unspecified reasons.
As a quick aside, given that Brakebills rounded up some of the country’s brightest, it’s more than a little odd that the school seems to be overwhelmingly white. It’s possible that race is just never mentioned, but character names and descriptions suggest that whiteness prevails. In fact, the only character who talks about any sense of outsiderism or prejudice is Eliot, a boy Quentin meets early on who seduces younger (male!) students in the corridors late at night and explains that he has no plans to use his powers to help “people” since “people” shoved him in dumpsters and made fun of him for being gay. Eliot dresses well, demands finery and extravagance, drinks frequently and says bitchy, judgmental things — making him a cross between Kurt Hummel and Sebastien Flyte, reaching uncomfortably high levels of gay stereotyping.
Even less clear is what goes on inside Brakebills, since Quentin falls in pretty quickly with “The Physical Kids” — older students Eliot, Janet and Josh, whose shared speciality is Physical magic, as opposed to Natural magic, Healing magic or a variety of other possible areas — after being allowed to jump ahead a grade for reasons that aren’t explained (other than that he’s very smart, one assumes) and seems to spend more time drinking in a private club house than going to class. Even though they don’t seem to attend class all that often, it is described as being very, very difficult (maybe because they’re never there) and involving a lot of complicated hand gestures, but no other details are really given during their four-year stint at the school. Eventually they all graduate after going through a rite of passage in the Antarctic and begin their lives. Quentin, meanwhile, has fallen in love with Alice, one of the girls he took his entrance exam with who was also bumped up a grade and who is one of the only characters that comes from a magical family. Alice warns Quentin that adult wizarding life is incredibly boring, since you can do basically whatever you want and have as much money as you want, and nothing’s a challenge anymore. The Physical Kids (and Quentin and Alice) spend the first bit of their post-graduate lives living together and getting drunk and having sex, until an old classmate (Penny the male goth) stumbles on a shocking secret — the Narnian series they read as kids (called Fillory) is real and he has a way to get them in. Desperate to relieve themselves of the boredom of being all-powerful, they set out on a real magical adventure.
If there is one great service that Lev Grossman does his readers, it’s that by allowing his characters to be actual human adolescents who’ve heard of magic and wizards and, you know, books, we don’t have to sit through long, unnecessary exposition scenes like, “What’s all this magic, then?” Much like how every zombie film offers a long montage/tutorial on how to kill zombies if you have managed to avoid the genre completely up to this point and lack basic logic and reasoning skills.
At the same time, Grossman does allow for some joy of discovery through Quentin Coldwater, his absurdly Gary-Stu-esque lead character, but more the joy of a kid who’s thrilled to learn that his Hogwarts invitation just got lost in the mail than someone who has to be told what a spell is. The rest of the characters in The Magicians aren’t ignorant, lost and shocked like the Harry Potters, Meg Murrys and Lucy Pevensies of old either. No, these are fanboys and fangirls being allowed to experience worlds and magic that they’ve always hoped were real. But at the same time, the first half of the book seems so concerned with not stepping on J.K. Rowling’s toes that it rushes through the magic school portion, spoiling what could have been a much more interesting story and leaving far too many questions unanswered. The second half is likewise so worried about coming across as overly Narnian that while Grossman constantly has his characters reflect on the awesome absurdity of getting to explore a world you read about as a child, the reader isn’t really allowed to get a full (or even small) scope of the land and its inhabitants, instead pushing us toward its bloody and confusing climax.
My main frustration is this: The Magicians easily could have been two books — one with the characters at magic school, the other about their exploration of “Fillory” — the Narnia stand-in. But again, Grossman is over-conscious that there’s a fine line between homage and copyright violation, and instead unsatisfactorily rushes both experiences. That’s not to say that The Magicians is bad, or even that I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s more that Grossman could have done a lot more with it and spent a little less time having the characters get drunk and copulate and then eventually do a bit of adventuring when they shook off the hangover.