Morally Complex 'Magicians' Recasts Potter's World

Lev Grossman i i

hide captionLev Grossman is the author of Warp and Codex. The Magicians is his third book.

Elena Siebert
Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman is the author of Warp and Codex. The Magicians is his third book.

Elena Siebert
The Magicians
By Lev Grossman
Hardcover, 416 pages
Viking Adult
List Price: $26.95

Read An Excerpt.

On first glance, Lev Grossman's new novel, The Magicians, looks very much like a Harry Potter story, only with slightly older characters, and an American setting. The hero, Quentin, is a teenager from Brooklyn on his way to a Princeton admissions interview when he's whisked through a portal to an Academy of Magic called Brakebills.

But Quentin differs from Harry Potter in that he reads fantasy novels, and he's enchanted to discover that the magic he's longed for all his life actually exists. Grossman says he's always wondered why Potter wasn't a fan of the genre:

"If I had grown up the way Harry did — in an abusive, loveless step-family — all I would have done was read fantasy. I would have been consumed by these ... stories about escape and power. And I always wondered why Harry wasn't a fantasy reader," he says.

Grossman, who works as the book critic for Time magazine, says that when he was young, he was particularly taken with J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia saga.

In Grossman's novel, the hero is obsessed with a series of books about a magical land called Fillory, which is much like Narnia. But at Brakebills, Quentin discovers that in real magic, things don't always work out the way they do in fantasy novels. When Quentin casts a prank spell in a magic class, he inadvertently summons a beast who eats one of his classmates. As he writes:

Things like this didn't happen in Fillory: there was conflict, and even violence, but it was always heroic and ennobling, and anybody really good and important who bought it along the way came back to life at the end of the book. Now there was a rip in the corner of his perfect world, and fear and sadness were pouring in like freezing filthy water through a busted dam.

Elizabeth Hand, who reviewed The Magicians for Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine, says the novel is beautifully written, with well-drawn, believable characters.

"One of the coolest aspects of this book is that the students at Brakebills College act like real college students," says Hand. "This is not your mother's Hogwarts. ... these are kids or students who are having relationships with each other. Some of them are having romantic or sexual relationships. There are students who are gay as well as straight. Students occasionally making references to drugs."

In the Harry Potter books and their film adaptations — as in most fantasy stories — there is a powerful malevolent being that the hero fights in an epic battle. But Grossman says he purposely left the villain out of his novel. He says that without a "big bad villain" Quentin's world is more complex.

"When you take [the villain] away, suddenly the universe gets a whole lot more complicated," he explains. "Suddenly it's all shades of gray. And it's not clear who belongs where. And it's not clear what magic is for."

In the end, the young magicians in Grossman's novel do use their magic to battle evil, but only after discovering a portal to the magical realm of Fillory, which they thought only existed in their novels.

The Magicians is Grossman's third novel, but it's his first fantasy book. The author says he used to care about being a "literary novelist," but now all he cares about is telling a good story.

"There's a strong tradition in the 20th century that is against storytelling," he says. "I wanted to move past that. I wanted to write something that was pure pleasure. ... and I felt that in doing so, you didn't have to give up the kind of beautiful, lyrical self-aware literary language that we associate with literary novels."

Grossman, who is now writing a sequel to The Magicians, says magic is a perfect metaphor for the power of language: Words can cast a spell, and change the universe.

Excerpt: 'The Magicians'

'The Magicians'

"The duration of the test is two and one half hours. Begin."

The Dean turned to the blackboard and drew a clock face on it. Quentin looked down at the blank booklet on his desk. It was no longer blank. It was filling with questions; the letters literally swam into being on the paper as he watched.

The room filled with a collective rustling of paper, like a flock of birds taking off. Heads bowed in unison. Quentin recognized this motion. It was the motion of a bunch of high-powered type- A test killers getting down to their bloody work.

That was all right. He was one of them.

The Magicians
By Lev Grossman
Hardcover, 416 pages
Viking Adult
List Price: $26.95

Quentin hadn't planned on spending the rest of his afternoon — or morning, or whatever this was — taking a standardized test on an unknown subject, at an unknown educational institution, in some unknown alternate climatic zone where it was still summer. He was supposed to be in Brooklyn freezing his ass off and being interviewed by some random senior citizen, currently deceased. But the logic of his immediate circumstances was overwhelming his other concerns, however well founded they might be. He had never been one to argue with logic.

A lot of the test was calculus, pretty basic stuff for Quentin, who was so mysteriously good at math that his high school had been forced to outsource that part of his education to Brooklyn College. Nothing more hazardous than some fancy differential geometry and a few linear algebra proofs. But there were more exotic questions, too. Some of them seemed totally pointless. One of them showed him the back of a playing card — not an actual card but a drawing of the back of a playing card, mind you, featuring your standard twin angels riding bicycles — and asked him to guess what card it was. How did that make sense?

Or later on the test gave him a passage from The Tempest, then asked him to make up a fake language, and then translate the Shakespeare into the made-up language. He was then asked questions about the grammar and orthography of his made-up language, and then — honestly, what was the point? — questions about the made-up geography and culture and society of the made-up country where his made-up language was so fluently

spoken. Then he had to translate the original passage from the fake language back into English, paying particular attention to any resulting distortions in grammar, word choice, and meaning. Seriously. He always gave everything he had on tests, but in this case he wasn't totally sure what he was supposed to give.

The test also changed as he took it. The reading-comprehension section showed him a paragraph that vanished as he read it, then quizzed him on its contents. Some new kind of computerized paper — hadn't he read somewhere that somebody was working on that? Digital ink? Amazing resolution, though. He was asked to draw a rabbit that wouldn't keep still as he drew it — as soon as it had paws it scratched itself luxuriously and then went hopping off around the page, nibbling at the other questions, so that he had to chase it with the pencil to finish filling in the fur. He wound up pacifying it with some hastily sketched radishes and then drawing a fence around it to keep it in line.

Soon he forgot about everything else except putting a satisfactory chunk of his neat handwriting next to one question after another, appeasing whatever perverse demands the test made on him. It was an hour before he even looked up from his desk. His ass hurt. He shifted in his chair. The patches of sunlight from the windows had moved.

Something else had changed, too. When he'd started every single desk had been filled, but now there was a sprinkling of empty ones. He hadn't noticed anybody leaving. A cold crystal seed of doubt formed in Quentin's stomach. Jesus, they must have finished already. He wasn't used to being outclassed in the classroom. The palms of his hands prickled with sweat, and he smeared them along his thighs. Who were these people?

When Quentin flipped to the next page of the test booklet it was blank except for a single word in the center of the page: FIN, in swirly italic type, like at the end of an old movie.

He sat back in the chair and pressed the heels of his aching hands against his aching eyes. Well, that was two hours of his life he'd never get back. Quentin still hadn't noticed anybody getting up and walking out, but the room was getting seriously depopulated. There were maybe fifty kids left, and more empty desks than full ones. It was like they were softly and silently slipping out of the room every time he turned his head. The punk with the tattoos and no shirt was still there. He must have finished, or given up, because he was dicking around by ordering more and more glasses of water. His desktop was crowded with glasses. Quentin spent the last twenty minutes staring out the window and practicing a spinning trick with his pencil.

The Dean came in again and addressed the room.

"I'm delighted to inform you all that you will be moving on to the next stage of testing," he said. "This stage will be conducted on an individual basis by members of the Brakebills faculty. In the meantime, you may enjoy some refreshment and converse among yourselves."

Quentin counted only twenty-two desks still occupied, maybe a tenth of the original group. Bizarrely, a silent, comically correct butler in white gloves entered and began circulating through the room. He gave each of them a wooden tray with a sandwich — roasted red peppers and very fresh mozzarella on sourdough bread — a lumpy pear, and a thick square of dark, bitter chocolate. He poured each student a glass of something cloudy and fizzy from an individual bottle without a label. It turned out to be grapefruit soda.

Quentin took his lunch and drifted up to the front row, where most of the rest of the test takers were gathering. He felt pathetically relieved to have gotten this far, even though he had no idea why he'd passed and the others had failed, or what he'd get for passing. The butler was patiently loading the clinking, sloshing collection of water glasses from the punk's desk onto a tray. Quentin looked for Julia, but either she hadn't made the cut or she'd never been there in the first place.

"They should have capped it," explained the punk, who said his name was Penny. He had a gentle moony face that was at odds with his otherwise terrifying appearance. "How much water you can ask for. Like maybe five glasses at most. I love finding shit like that, where the system screws itself with its own rules."

He shrugged.

"Anyway, I was bored. The test told me I was done after twenty minutes."

"Twenty minutes?" Quentin was torn between admiration and envy. "Jesus Christ, it took me two hours."

The punk shrugged again and made a face: What the hell do you want me to say?

Among the test takers, camaraderie warred with mistrust. Some of the kids exchanged names and home towns and cautious observations about the test, though the more they compared notes, the more they realized that none of them had taken the same one. They were from all over the country, except for two who turned out to be from the same Inuit reservation in Saskatchewan. They went around the room telling stories about how they'd gotten here. No two were exactly the same, but there was always a certain family resemblance. Somebody went looking for a lost ball in an alley, or a stray goat in a drainage ditch, or followed an inexplicable extra cable in the high school computer room which led to a server closet that had never been there before. And then green grass and summer heat and somebody to take them up to the exam room.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Copyright 2009 by Lev Grossman.

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