The Magicians

Harry Potter was the top Twitter topic for days on end in July, with the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, out in paperback, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince at last onscreen. Fans were taking the “Which Harry Potter Character Are You?” quiz and bemoaning the coming Harry Potter vacuum (“If only Hogwarts were real…”). Having read every Harry Potter novel within days of release in “real time,” I’m among those feeling bereft.

Along comes Time magazine senior book critic and Nerd World blog regular Lev Grossman’s impeccably timed new fantasy novel aimed at grown-ups who love J. K. Rowling’s bewitching tales. The Magicians has the familiar mix of budding magicians and villains, and a group of spell-casting friends who are transported to a magical kingdom — called Fillory — not unlike Narnia. However, while The Magicians draws inspiration from Rowling, Lewis, Tolkien, and others, with appropriate tips of the hat, Grossman avoids schematic parallels to his predecessors. His creation is a deliciously detailed new universe — notably X-rated in comparison to those more child-friendly fantasies, filled with complicated adult impulses and angst, not to mention sex, drugs, and single-malt scotch.

Quentin Coldwater is a tall, thin 17-year-old who yearns for happiness but settles for being “ridiculously brilliant” in matters mathematical and magical. Quentin is obsessed with the “Fillory and Further” novels, a series of five 1930s English books in which five Chatwin siblings discover a magical land while visiting their eccentric aunt and uncle in the countryside. In the last book in the series, the eldest son, Martin, does not come back from Fillory.

While his classmates have moved on, Quentin never quite outgrew the Fillory books, nor the hope that they could do what books promised to do and never quite did –“get you out, really out, of where you were and into somewhere better.”

The novel opens in Brooklyn, where Quentin and his best friend, James, are on their way to a final admissions interview with a Princeton graduate. “The real problem with being around James was that he was always the hero,” Quentin notes wryly.” And what did that make you? Either the sidekick or the villain.” Quentin and James discover their interviewer dead on the floor of his den. An attractive paramedic gives Quentin an envelope that contains a notebook with the first page handwritten in ink: “The Magicians: Book Six of Fillory and Further.” Drum roll. A piece of white notepaper flies out of the notebook and leads Quentin to a portal in a community garden in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope. From there he is whisked off to Brakebills, a school for magicians up the Hudson.

Step one: Quentin is tested. As he comes to the end of the day, he’s called upon to prove his magical talent with a deck of cards. “With two hands together, as if he were releasing a dove, he tossed the deck of cards lightly up to the ceiling. The deck broke apart and scattered in flight, like a meteorite losing cohesion in the atmosphere, and as the cards fluttered back down to earth they stacked themselves on the tabletop. They formed a house of cards.”

Quentin passes, joining 100 students (20 in each class) to spend five years studying the art and craft of magic. Obviously, Brakebills is modeled after Hogwarts, but most everything is freshly minted and enthralling (an exception is the game of “welters,” an echo of Quidditch that doesn’t quite work as well). Each year at Brakebills has its challenges, rivalries, and casualties. The most ominous moment comes during Quentin’s third year. Bored during a lecture, he casts a spell. For an instant, “the film of reality slipped off the spokes of its projector.” And standing behind the lecturing professor is a small, well-dressed man with a leafy branch partially obscuring his face.

Everyone in the room is frozen in place for hours. Finally Amanda Orloff, a Brakebills student, gets free and begins chanting a powerful offensive spell, a bit of war magic — taboo to students — aimed at tearing an opponent apart. The dapper fellow — termed thereafter “the beast” — retaliates by eating Amanda alive. At last he disappears, although he pops up more than once to terrorize Quentin and his friends.

Grossman is superb at describing Quentin’s transformations into animals. Along with half the other fourth-year students, Quentin is awakened one January night and magically turned into a goose for a flight to Brakebills South (at the pole).”Quentin’s new goose-brain, it emerged, was not much given to reflection. His senses tracked only a handful of key stimuli but it tracked those very, very closely. This body was made for either sitting or flying, not much else, and as it happened, Quentin was in a mood to fly. In fact, he felt like flying more than he had ever felt like doing anything else in his entire life.”

As a fox at Brakebills South, Quentin has sex with a fellow student named Alice. “He locked his teeth in the thick fur of her neck?.. Something crazy and urgent was going on.and there was no way to stop it, or probably there was but why would you? Stopping was one of those pointless, life-defeating human impulses for which his merry little fox brain had nothing but contempt.”

By his fifth year, Quentin is obsessed with what to do after graduation. The thought of a transition to a world outside of magic brings him to despair. At the Brakebills Fifth Years graduation banquet, he has his first taste of scotch.” It was amazing that anything in liquid form could taste that much like both smoke and fire.” That night each Brakebills graduate is gifted with a tattoo inset with a customized demon that will fight to the death to protect them.

The Magicians takes a sinister turn as the new graduates settle into gritty life in New York. Quentin has forgotten what it was like to be in the mundane world all the time. “Nothing was enchanted; everything was what it was and nothing more. Every conceivable surface was plastered with words — concern posters, billboards, graffiti, maps, signs, warning labels, alternate-side parking regulations — but none of it meant anything, not the way a spell did….To a magician’s eyes, Manhattan looked like a desert.”

Quentin, Alice, Eliot, Janet, and Josh laze away their days and give lavish dinner parties. Quentin grows so bored he betrays Alice after a long, boozy night and wakes up in bed with Janet and Eliot. Just as Alice confronts him, former Brakebills classmate Penny reappears and offers the gang a chance to go to Fillory. Off they go, without knowing that something ominous is going on, and evil has taken over the magical place.

The final battle of The Magicians is a hair-raising and riveting phantasmagoria of demons and monsters armed with the finest in battle magic. There are dead to be counted in the end, and several after-moments (including the appearance of a memorable centauress doctor named Alder Acorn Agnes Allison-fragrant timber). When, at last, The Magicians concluded, I wanted to keep the magic going. So I reread it. With relief I realized that although Grossman polished each plot turn and detail to a fine finish, he has left enough of a question mark at the end to make for the possibility — yes! — of a sequel.