It’s official: Lev Grossman’s fantastic book series The Magicians has inspired one of the best adaptations on television. The series based on Grossman’s books has managed the trickiest of all balancing acts, both honoring its source material and going beyond it in satisfying, intriguing ways. Grossman’s books are aggressively meta, a brilliant deconstruction of fantasy books that merrily wears the deconstruction on its sleeve—the brilliance of Quentin Coldwater discovering that magic is as tedious, difficult, and dense as advanced physics or maths is balanced with the childlike joy Grossman manages to convey concerning the actual use of it, and the discovery of a very real Narnia-esque portal world. Overall it’s a childhood fantasy viewed through an adult lens, and there’s no better way to celebrate the show’s return than by diving into some other fantasy worlds.
The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis & The Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling
Let’s get these out of the way: if you somehow haven’t read the Narnia books, which are the inspiration for Fillory and the ur-portal fantasy of a billion childhoods, or the Potter books (which, seriously, how?), you’re not only missing some of the fundamental building blocks of Grossman’s universe, you’re likely missing something fundamental from your reading life. These two series are how The Magicians came to be—even if you have read them, reading them again—or, you know, for a fifth or sixteenth time—is never a bad idea.
Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
Grossman cited this stone-cold classic as one of the most important books in his life, and aside from its general greatness (seriously, read this book) it’s easy to see where it’s folded into the foundations of The Magicians, as it’s primarily a story of college grads and their fates after school. Lyrical, beautiful, sad, and somehow existing in a unique fictional universe despite being a realistic novel, there are grace notes of Waugh throughout Grossman’s books that you’ll suddenly see after you read this.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Grossman himself recommends Clarke’s neo-classic when people ask what they should read after The Magicians. A thousand-page riff on Victorian literature and fairy tales, it’s set in a 19th century world where magic has recently returned after a long absence. A fateful rivalry develops between stuffy, bookish magician Mr. Norrell and showy upstart Jonathan Strange, with world-changing consequences. It is one of the most unusual works of fantasy you’ll ever read, filled with epic detail and a writing style that brings names like Dickens and Austen to mind. It’s a masterpiece, and nothing short of remarkable, and it is a perfect companion piece to Grossman’s books, exploring the theme of what happens when magic is discovered to be real in a totally different but complementary way that Grossman fans will appreciate.
The Paper Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg
The story kicks off after young Ceony graduates from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined and is assigned to her apprenticeship—in paper magic, about as far from her desired specialty, metal, as she can get. But just as Simon finds that the hard work and late nights required to master magic in his universe are worth it, Ceony finds that putting the work in with her charming mentor, Emery Thane, yields amazing results. But there’s forbidden magic in this world, blood magic that operates on flesh and bone, and Ceony is forced to rely on her imperfect mastery to save Thane, and possibly the world. It’s a perfect series for fans of Grossman’s books.
The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher
It’s pretty simple math: while they’re different beasts in terms of tone and plot devices, the fact is that folks who love The Magicians will probably love Jim Butcher’s detective-cum-wizard Harry Dresden, who brings a hard-boiled edge to his investigations of paranormal and magical events and crimes. It’s easy to imagine someone graduating Watford and slowly evolving into Harry; although the magic systems are completely different, the tone matches up well, making this an ideal series to dive into when you need a new adventure that combines magic, sass, and plenty of great plot twists.
Soon I Will be Invincible, by Austin Grossman
Superheros instead of magicians, but Lev’s twin brother Austin has written one of the most fun and enjoyable comic-book subversions ever. As Doctor Impossible plots his escape from prison and questions his life choices, the league of heroes known as The Champions patrol the world against wrongdoers and struggle with their own existential crises and personal failings as they deal with the disappearance of their greatest member. It’s hilarious, and captures the tone of comic books with pitch-perfect skill while offering an augmented view of the world that will appeal to fans of The Magicians.
The Shades of Magic Series, by V.E. Schwab
If part of what appeals to you about The Magicians is the idea that magic is hidden—but could be around any corner—than Schwab’s fantastic Shades of Magic is required reading. The story spans four alternate Londons—White London, soaked in and consumed by magic, Red London, where magic is used reasonably and intelligently, Grey London (our world) where magic has been all but forgotten, and Black London, where magic has crushed the life out of everything. Its elemental magic system isn’t very similar to Grossman’s realistically arcane discipline, but the dense storytelling and joy of magic is right in line and the perfect way to prime your imagination for the TV show.
The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern
Dreamy, lush, and romantic, at first glance this might not seem like it has much in common with Grossman’s story. The crucial link, again, is the way magic is presented as hidden in plain view—the Night Circus is truly magical, but obscures its nature simply by performing its spells for people’s entertainment, as part of the circus act. This allows the two rival magicians traveling with it to wage a proxy war of magic right in front of amazed audiences, who never suspect what they’re actually seeing even as they rave about the trick. It’s ultimately concerned with the human heart, and is exactly the sort of book that Simon would have read and loved.
Paperback $9.60 | $10.99
The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss
Rothfuss’s modern classic is very different in tone from Grossman’s work, and is set in an epic fantasy universe instead of an urban one. That said, it’s a modern classic for reasons, not the least of which is that the whole “school of magic” aspect is just one part of the story—the legendary warrior, bard, and magician Kvothe’s life story is already pretty epic by the time he sets his sights on gaining admission to the University. This is one of those stories where the destination is the journey, and not only will it serve as a great alternative flavor in stories about people learning the secrets of the universe, it will also addict you to a whole book series.
Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell
If it’s the meta-ness of The Magicians that you groove on, it simply doesn’t get more meta than Rowell’s first foray into fantasy literature. The story of Simon Snow, the Chosen One finishing his final year at Watford School of Magicks and his roommate (or maybe more) Baz Grimm-Pitch began life as a fictional book series modeled on Harry Potter in Rowell’s Fangirl, seen largely through a slash fan-fic being written by a character in that book. So this is the real novel based on the fan-fic based on the fictional novels in the fictional world of a totally separate novel. Got that? Doesn’t matter—it’s actually a fun, bouncy riff on the whole ‛kids in magician school’ trope that offers a wonderful accent to your Magicians meal prep.