Morally Complex 'Magicians' Recasts Potter's World At first glance, Lev Grossman's new novel looks very much like a Harry Potter story — with older characters and an American setting. But a heap of moral ambiguity surrounds the use of magic and there is no villain, giving the tale many shades of gray.
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Morally Complex 'Magicians' Recasts Potter's World

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Morally Complex 'Magicians' Recasts Potter's World

Morally Complex 'Magicians' Recasts Potter's World

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

What will Harry Potter do with the rest of his life, that is, after he defeats Voldemort and graduates from Hogwarts? Questions like that drove the thinking behind a new fantasy novel. It's a magical story in itself and it's also a critique of the fantasy genre. Tom Vitale has our story.

TOM VITALE: On first glance, Lev Grossman's "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. Author Lev Grossman.

Mr. LEV GROSSMAN (Author, "The Magicians"): If I had grown up the way Harry did, in an abusive, loveless stepfamily, all I would've done was read fantasy. I would've been consumed by these - just stories about escape and power. And I always wondered why Harry wasn't a fantasy reader.

VITALE: Now 40 years old and the book critic for Time magazine, Grossman says when he was young, he was particularly taken with "The Lord of the Rings" by J.R.R. Tolkien and "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C.S. Lewis.

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.

Mr. GROSSMAN: (Reading) 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.

Ms. ELIZABETH HAND (Book Critic): Really, one of the coolest aspects of this book is that the students at Brakebills College act like real college students.

VITALE: Elizabeth Hand reviewed "The Magicians" in the current issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine. She says the novel is beautifully written, with well-drawn, believable characters.

Ms. HAND: I mean, these are kids or students who are having relationships with each other. Some of them are having, you know, romantic or sexual relationships. There are students who are gay, as well as straight, students occasionally making references to drugs. This is not your mother's Hogwarts.

(Soundbite of movie "Harry Potter and the Half blood Prince")

Mr. DANIEL RADCLIFFE (Actor): (As Harry Potter) If you could find them all, if you did destroy each Horcrux…

Mr. MICHAEL GAMBON (Actor): (As Professor Dumbledore) …one destroys Voldemort.

Mr. RADCLIFFE: (As Harry Potter) How would you find them? They could be hidden anywhere, couldn't they?

Mr. GAMBON: (As Professor Dumbledore) True. But magic, especially dark magic…

VITALE: In the Harry Potter books and their film adaptations, as in most fantasy stories, there is a powerful malevolent being, a Voldemort or Sauron, who the hero fights in an epic battle. Lev Grossman says he purposely left the villain out of his fantasy novel.

Mr. GROSSMAN: Voldemort and anyone like that in a fantasy novel, any big, bad villain, has a kind of powerful organizing presence on the universe. You know who's good, you know who's evil and you know what magic is for. It's for fighting evil. Well, when you take that away, suddenly the universe gets a whole lot more complicated. Suddenly, it's all shades of gray, and it's not clear who belongs where, and it's not clear what magic is for.

VITALE: In the end, the young magicians in Grossman's novel do use their magic to battle evil, when they discover a portal to the magical realm of Fillory, which they thought only existed in their novels. With Fillory, Grossman says he wanted to reinterpret the Narnia of C.S. Lewis and the role of the lion god Aslan, also depicted in the film adaptation.

(Soundbite of movie "The Chronicles of Narnia")

Mr. WILLIAM MOSELEY (Actor): (As Peter Pevensie) Aslan, we need your help.

Mr. LIAM NEESON (Actor): (As Aslan) I know. But understand, the future of Narnia rests on your courage.

Mr. GROSSMAN: I remember being very angry as a child and as an adult at Aslan. I always felt that here is a world that had a, you know, a proper god in it, a god who you could see, who would come down and change the course of events, but he didn't do it very much, and he would often let battles go on and events really spin out of control, and people would die before Aslan would step in. Why would a God not help people in every possible way that he could?

VITALE: So in "The Magicians," Quentin and his colleagues confront the god of Fillory, a ram named Ember, demanding to know why he let his people suffer.

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

Mr. GROSSMAN: There's a strong tradition in the 20th century that is against storytelling. It is against plot. I wanted to move past that. I wanted to write something that was pure pleasure and pure storytelling. 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.

VITALE: Lev Grossman says now he's writing a sequel to "The Magicians." He says magic is a perfect metaphor for the power of language, that words can cast a spell and change the universe.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

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