“The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea. . . . Hogwarts was never like this.”
—George R.R. Martin
“Sad, hilarious, beautiful, and essential to anyone who cares about modern fantasy.”
“A very knowing and wonderful take on the wizard school genre.”
“The Magicians may just be the most subversive, gripping and enchanting fantasy novel I’ve read this century.”
“This gripping novel draws on the conventions of contemporary and classic fantasy novels in order to upend them . . . an unexpectedly moving coming-of-age story.”
—The New Yorker
“The best urban fantasy in years.”
Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A high school math genius, he’s secretly fascinated with a series of children’s fantasy novels set in a magical land called Fillory, and real life is disappointing by comparison. When Quentin is unexpectedly admitted to an elite, secret college of magic, it looks like his wildest dreams have come true. But his newfound powers lead him down a rabbit hole of hedonism and disillusionment, and ultimately to the dark secret behind the story of Fillory. The land of his childhood fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he ever could have imagined. . . .
The prequel to the New York Times bestselling book The Magician King and the #1 bestseller The Magician's Land, The Magicians is one of the most daring and inventive works of literary fantasy in years. No one who has escaped into the worlds of Narnia and Harry Potter should miss this breathtaking return to the landscape of the imagination.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Copyright © Lev Grossman, 2009
Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.
They picked their way along the cold, uneven sidewalk together: James, Julia, and Quentin. James and Julia held hands. That’s how things were now. The sidewalk wasn’t quite wide enough, so Quentin trailed after them, like a sulky child. He would rather have been alone with Julia, or just alone period, but you couldn’t have everything. Or at least the available evidence pointed overwhelmingly to that conclusion.
“Okay!” James said over his shoulder. “Q. Let’s talk strategy.”
James seemed to have a sixth sense for when Quentin was starting to feel sorry for himself. Quentin’s interview was in seven minutes. James was right after him.
“Nice firm handshake. Lots of eye contact. Then when he’s feeling comfortable, you hit him with a chair and I’ll break his password and e-mail Princeton.”
“Just be yourself, Q,” Julia said.
Her dark hair was pulled back in a wavy bunch. Somehow it made it worse that she was always so nice to him.
“How is that different from what I said?”
Quentin did the magic trick again. It was a very small trick, a basic one-handed sleight with a nickel. He did it in his coat pocket where nobody could see. He did it again, then he did it backward.
“I have one guess for his password,” James said. “Password.”
It was kind of incredible how long this had been going on, Quentin thought. They were only seventeen, but he felt like he’d known James and Julia forever. The school systems in Brooklyn sorted out the gifted ones and shoved them together, then separated the ridiculously brilliant ones from the merely gifted ones and shoved them together, and as a result they’d been bumping into each other in the same speaking contests and regional Latin exams and tiny, specially convened ultra-advanced math classes since elementary school. The nerdiest of the nerds. By now, their senior year, Quentin knew James and Julia better than he knew anybody else in the world, not excluding his parents, and they knew him. Everybody knew what everybody else was going to say before they said it. Everybody who was going to sleep with anybody else had already done it. Julia—pale, freckled, dreamy Julia, who played the oboe and knew even more physics than he did—was never going to sleep with Quentin.
Quentin was thin and tall, though he habitually hunched his shoulders in a vain attempt to brace himself against whatever blow was coming from the heavens, and which would logically hit the tall people first. His shoulder-length hair was freezing in clumps. He should have stuck around to dry it after gym, especially with his interview today, but for some reason—maybe he was in a self-sabotaging mood—he hadn’t. The low gray sky threatened snow. It seemed to Quentin like the world was offering up special little tableaux of misery just for him: crows perched on power lines, stepped-in dog shit, windblown trash, the corpses of innumerable wet oak leaves being desecrated in innumerable ways by innumerable vehicles and pedestrians.
“God, I’m full,” James said. “I ate too much. Why do I always eat too much?”
“Because you’re a greedy pig?” Julia said brightly. “Because you’re tired of being able to see your feet? Because you’re trying to make your stomach touch your penis?”
James put his hands behind his head, his fingers in his wavy chestnut hair, his camel cashmere coat wide open to the November cold, and belched mightily. Cold never bothered him. Quentin felt cold all the time, like he was trapped in his own private individual winter.
James sang, to a tune somewhere between “Good King Wenceslas” and “Bingo”:
In olden times there was a boy
Young and strong and brave-o
He wore a sword and rode a horse
And his name was Dave-o . . .
“God!” Julia shrieked. “Stop!”
James had written this song five years ago for a middle-school talent show skit. He still liked to sing it; by now they all knew it by heart. Julia shoved him, still singing, into a garbage can, and when that didn’t work she snatched off his watch cap and started beating him over the head with it.
“My hair! My beautiful interview hair!”
King James, Quentin thought. Le roi s’amuse.
“I hate to break up the party,” he said, “but we’ve got like two minutes.”
“Oh dear, oh dear!” Julia twittered. “The duchess! We shall be quite late!”
I should be happy, Quentin thought. I’m young and alive and healthy. I have good friends. I have two reasonably intact parents—viz., Dad, an editor of medical textbooks, and Mom, a commercial illustrator with ambitions, thwarted, of being a painter. I am a solid member of the middle-middle class. My GPA is a number higher than most people even realize it is possible for a GPA to be.
But walking along Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, in his black overcoat and his gray interview suit, Quentin knew he wasn’t happy. Why not? He had painstakingly assembled all the ingredients of happiness. He had performed all the necessary rituals, spoken the words, lit the candles, made the sacrifices. But happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come. He couldn’t think what else to do.
He followed James and Julia past bodegas, laundromats, hipster boutiques, cell-phone stores limned with neon piping, past a bar where old people were already drinking at three forty-five in the afternoon, past a brown-brick Veterans of Foreign Wars hall with plastic patio furniture on the sidewalk in front of it. All of it just confirmed his belief that his real life, the life he should be living, had been mislaid through some clerical error by the cosmic bureaucracy. This couldn’t be it. It had been diverted somewhere else, to somebody else, and he’d been issued this shitty substitute faux life instead.
Maybe his real life would turn up in Princeton. He did the trick with the nickel in his pocket again.
“Are you playing with your wang, Quentin?” James asked.
“I am not playing with my wang.”
“Nothing to be ashamed of.” James clapped him on the shoulder. “Clears the mind.”
The wind bit through the thin material of Quentin’s interview suit, but he refused to button his overcoat. He let the cold blow through it. It didn’t matter, he wasn’t really there anyway.
He was in Fillory.
Christopher Plover’s Fillory and Further is a series of five novels published in England in the 1930s. They describe the adventures of the five Chatwin children in a magical land that they discover while on holiday in the countryside with their eccentric aunt and uncle. They aren’t really on holiday, of course—their father is up to his hips in mud and blood at Passchendaele, and their mother has been hospitalized with a mysterious illness that is probably psychological in nature, which is why they’ve been hastily packed off to the country for safekeeping.
But all that unhappiness takes place far in the background. In the foreground, every summer for three years, the children leave their various boarding schools and return to Cornwall, and each time they do they find their way into the secret world of Fillory, where they have adventures and explore magical lands and defend the gentle creatures who live there against the various forces that menace them. The strangest and most persistent of those enemies is a veiled figure known only as the Watcherwoman, whose horological enchantments threaten to stall time itself, trapping all of Fillory at five o’clock on a particularly dreary, drizzly afternoon in late September.
Like most people Quentin read the Fillory books in grade school. Unlike most people—unlike James and Julia—he never got over them. They were where he went when he couldn’t deal with the real world, which was a lot. (The Fillory books were both a consolation for Julia not loving him and also probably a major reason why she didn’t.) And it was true, there was a strong whiff of the English nursery about them, and he felt secretly embarrassed when he got to the parts about the Cozy Horse, an enormous, affectionate equine creature who trots around Fillory by night on velvet hooves, and whose back is so broad you can sleep on it.
But there was a more seductive, more dangerous truth to Fillory that Quentin couldn’t let go of. It was almost like the Fillory books—especially the first one, The World in the Walls—were about reading itself. When the oldest Chatwin, melancholy Martin, opens the cabinet of the grandfather clock that stands in a dark, narrow back hallway in his aunt’s house and slips through into Fillory (Quentin always pictured him awkwardly pushing aside the pendulum, like the uvula of a monstrous throat), it’s like he’s opening the covers of a book, but a book that did what books always promised to do and never actually quite did: get you out, really out, of where you were and into somewhere better.
The world Martin discovers in the walls of his aunt’s house is a world of magical twilight, a landscape as black and white and stark as a printed page, with prickly stubblefields and rolling hills crisscrossed by old stone walls. In Fillory there’s an eclipse every day at noon, and seasons can last for a hundred years. Bare trees scratch at the sky. Pale green seas lap at narrow white beaches made of broken shells. In Fillory things mattered in a way they didn’t in this world. In Fillory you felt the appropriate emotions when things happened. Happiness was a real, actual, achievable possibility. It came when you called. Or no, it never left you in the first place.
They stood on the sidewalk in front of the house. The neighborhood was fancier here, with wide sidewalks and overhanging trees. The house was brick, the only unattached residential structure in a neighborhood of row houses and brownstones. It was locally famous for having played a role in the bloody, costly Battle of Brooklyn. It seemed to gently reproach the cars and streetlights around it with memories of its gracious Old Dutch past.
If this were a Fillory novel—Quentin thought, just for the record—the house would contain a secret gateway to another world. The old man who lived there would be kindly and eccentric and drop cryptic remarks, and then when his back was turned Quentin would stumble on a mysterious cabinet or an enchanted dumbwaiter or whatever, through which he would gaze with wild surmise on the clean breast of another world.
But this wasn’t a Fillory novel.
“So,” Julia said. “Give ’em Hades.”
She wore a blue serge coat with a round collar that made her look like a French schoolgirl.
“See you at the library maybe.”
They bumped fists. She dropped her gaze, embarrassed. She knew how he felt, and he knew she knew, and there was nothing more to say about it. He waited, pretending to be fascinated by a parked car, while she kissed James good-bye—she put a hand on his chest and kicked up her heel like an old-timey starlet—then he and James walked slowly up the cement path to the front door.
James put his arm around Quentin’s shoulders.
“I know what you think, Quentin,” he said gruffly. Quentin was taller, but James was broader, more solidly built, and he pulled Quentin off balance. “You think nobody understands you. But I do.” He squeezed Quentin’s shoulder in an almost fatherly way. “I’m the only one who does.”
Quentin said nothing. You could envy James, but you couldn’t hate him, because along with being handsome and smart he was also, at heart, kind and good. More than anybody else Quentin had ever met, James reminded him of Martin Chatwin. But if James was a Chatwin, what did that make Quentin? The real problem with being around James was that he was always the hero. And what did that make you? Either the sidekick or the villain.
Quentin rang the doorbell. A soft, tinny clatter erupted somewhere in the depths of the darkened house. An old-fashioned, analog ring. He rehearsed a mental list of his extracurriculars, personal goals, etc. He was absolutely prepared for this interview in every possible way, except maybe his incompletely dried hair, but now that the ripened fruit of all that preparation was right in front of him he suddenly lost any desire for it. He wasn’t surprised. He was used to this anticlimactic feeling, where by the time you’ve done all the work to get something you don’t even want it anymore. He had it all the time. It was one of the few things he could depend on.
The doorway was guarded by a depressingly ordinary suburban screen door. Orange and purple zinnias were still blooming, against all horticultural logic, in a random scatter pattern in black earth beds on either side of the doorstep. How weird, Quentin thought, with no curiosity at all, that they would still be alive in November. He withdrew his ungloved hands into the sleeves of his coat and placed the ends of the sleeves under his arms. Even though it felt cold enough to snow, somehow it began to rain.
It was still raining five minutes later. Quentin knocked on the door again, then pushed lightly. It opened a crack, and a wave of warm air tumbled out. The warm, fruity smell of a stranger’s house.
“Hello?” Quentin called. He and James exchanged glances. He pushed the door all the way open.
“Better give him another minute.”
“Who even does this in their spare time?” Quentin said. “I bet he’s a pedophile.”
The foyer was dark and silent and muffled with Oriental rugs. Still outside, James leaned on the doorbell. No one answered.
“I don’t think anybody’s here,” Quentin said. That James wasn’t coming inside suddenly made him want to go inside more. If the interviewer actually turned out to be a gatekeeper to the magical land of Fillory, he thought, it was too bad he wasn’t wearing more practical shoes.
A staircase went up. On the left was a stiff, unused-looking dining room, on the right a cozy den with leather armchairs and a carved, man-size wooden cabinet standing by itself in a corner. Interesting. An old nautical map taller than he was took up half of one wall, with an ornately barbed compass rose. He massaged the walls in search of a light switch. There was a cane chair in one corner, but he didn’t sit.
All the blinds were drawn. The quality of the darkness was less like a house with the curtains drawn than it was like actual night, as if the sun had set or been eclipsed the moment he crossed the threshold. Quentin slow-motion-walked into the den. He’d go back outside and call. In another minute. He had to at least look. The darkness was like a prickling electric cloud around him.
The cabinet was enormous, so big you could climb into it. He placed his hand on its small, dinged brass knob. It was unlocked. His fingers trembled. Le roi s’amuse. He couldn’t help himself. It felt like the world was revolving around him, like his whole life had been leading up to this moment.
It was a liquor cabinet. A big one, there was practically a whole bar in there. Quentin reached back past the ranks of softly jingling bottles and felt the dry, scratchy plywood at the back just to make sure. Solid. Nothing magical about it. He closed the door, breathing hard, his face burning in the darkness. It was when he looked around to make absolutely sure that nobody was watching that he saw the dead body on the floor.
Fifteen minutes later the foyer was full of people and activity. Quentin sat in a corner, in the cane chair, like a pallbearer at the funeral of somebody he’d never met. He kept the back of his skull pressed firmly against the cool solid wall like it was his last point of connection to a same reality. James stood next to him. He didn’t seem to know where to put his hands. They didn’t look at each other.
The old man lay flat on his back on the floor. His stomach was a sizable round hump, his hair a crazy gray Einstein half-noggin. Three paramedics crouched around him, two men and a woman. The woman was disarmingly, almost inappropriately pretty—she looked out of place in that grim scene, miscast. The paramedics were at work, but it wasn’t the high-speed clinical blitz of an emergency life-saving treatment. This was the other kind, the obligatory failed resuscitation. They were murmuring in low voices, packing up, ripping off adhesive patches, discarding contaminated sharps in a special container.
With a practiced, muscular movement one of the men de-intubated the corpse. The old man’s mouth was open, and Quentin could see his dead gray tongue. He smelled something that he didn’t want to admit was the faint, bitter odor of shit.
“This is bad,” James said, not for the first time.
“Yes,” Quentin said thickly. “Extremely bad.” His lips and teeth felt numb.
If he didn’t move, nobody could involve him in this any further. He tried to breathe slowly and keep still. He stared straight ahead, refusing to focus his eyes on what was happening in the den. He knew if he looked at James he would only see his own mental state reflected back at him in an infinite corridor of panic that led nowhere. He wondered when it would be all right for them to leave. He couldn’t get rid of a feeling of shame that he was the one who went into the house uninvited, as if that had somehow caused the man’s death.
“I shouldn’t have called him a pedophile,” Quentin said out loud. “That was wrong.”
“Extremely wrong,” James agreed. They spoke slowly, like they were both trying out language for the very first time.
One of the paramedics, the woman, stood up from where she was squatting by the body. Quentin watched her stretch, heels of her hands pressed to her lumbar region, tipping her head one way, then the other. Then she walked over in their direction, stripping off rubber gloves.
“Well,” she announced cheerfully, “he’s dead!” By her accent she was English.
Quentin cleared his clotted throat. The woman chucked the gloves neatly into the trash from across the room.
“What happened to him?”
“Cerebral hemorrhage. Nice quick way to go, if you have to go. Which he did. He must have been a drinker.”
She made the drinky-drinky gesture.
Her cheeks were flushed from crouching down over the body. She might have been twenty-five at most, and she wore a dark blue short-sleeved button-down shirt, neatly pressed, with one button that didn’t match: a stewardess on the connecting flight to hell. Quentin wished she weren’t so attractive. Unpretty women were so much easier to deal with in some ways—you didn’t have to face the pain of their probable unattainability. But she was not unpretty. She was pale and thin and unreasonably lovely, with a broad, ridiculously sexy mouth.
“Well.” Quentin didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry.”
“Why are you sorry?” she said. “Did you kill him?”
“I’m just here for an interview. He did alumni interviews for Princeton.”
“So why do you care?”
Quentin hesitated. He wondered if he’d misunderstood the premise of this conversation. He stood up, which he should have done when she first came over anyway. He was much taller than her. Even under the circumstances, he thought, this person is carrying around a lot of attitude for a paramedic. It’s not like she’s a real doctor or anything. He wanted to scan her chest for a name tag but didn’t want to get caught looking at her breasts.
“I don’t actually care about him, personally,” Quentin said carefully, “but I do place a certain value on human life in the abstract. So even though I didn’t know him, I think I can say that I’m sorry that he’s dead.”
“What if he was a monster? Maybe he really was a pedophile.”
She’d overheard him.
“Maybe. Maybe he was a nice guy. Maybe he was a saint.”
“You must spend a lot of time around dead people.” Out of the corner of his eye he was vaguely aware that James was watching this exchange, baffled.
“Well, you’re supposed to keep them alive. Or that’s what they tell us.”
“It must be hard.”
“The dead ones are a lot less trouble.”
The look in her eyes didn’t quite match what she was saying. She was studying him.
“Listen,” James cut in. “We should probably go.”
“What’s your hurry?” she said. Her eyes hadn’t left Quentin’s. Unlike practically everybody, she seemed more interested in him than in James. “Listen, I think this guy might have left something for you.”
She picked up two manila envelopes, document-size, off a marble-topped side table. Quentin frowned.
“I don’t think so.”
“We should probably go,” James said.
“You said that already,” the paramedic said.
James opened the door. The cold air was a pleasant shock. It felt real. That was what Quentin needed: more reality. Less of this, whatever this was.
“Seriously,” the woman said. “I think you should take these. It might be important.”
Her eyes wouldn’t leave Quentin’s face. The day had gone still around them. It was chilly on the stoop, and getting a little damp, and he was roughly ten yards away from a corpse.
“Listen, we’re gonna go,” James was saying. “Thanks. I’m sure you did everything you could.”
The pretty paramedic’s dark hair was in two heavy ropes of braid. She wore a shiny yellow enamel ring and some kind of fancy silver antique wristwatch. Her nose and chin were tiny and pointy. She was a pale, skinny, pretty angel of death, and she held two manila envelopes with their names on them in block Magic Marker letters. Probably transcripts, confidential recommendations. For some reason, maybe just because he knew James wouldn’t, Quentin took the one with his name on it.
“All right! Good-bye!” the paramedic sang. She twirled back into the house and closed the door. They were alone on the stoop.
“Well,” James said. He inhaled through his nose and breathed out firmly.
Quentin nodded, as if he were agreeing with something James had said. Slowly they walked back up the path to the sidewalk. He still felt dazed. He didn’t especially want to talk to James.
“Listen,” James said. “You probably shouldn’t have that.”
“I know,” Quentin said.
“You could still put it back, you know. I mean, what if they found out?”
“How would they find out?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who knows what’s in here? Could come in useful.”
“Yeah, well, lucky thing that guy died then!” James said irritably.
They walked to the end of the block without speaking, annoyed at each other and not wanting to admit it. The slate sidewalk was wet, and the sky was white with rain. Quentin knew he probably shouldn’t have taken the envelope. He was pissed at himself for taking it and pissed at James for not taking his.
“Look, I’ll see you later,” James said. “I gotta go meet Jules at the library.”
They shook hands formally. It felt strangely final. Quentin walked away slowly down First Street. A man had died in the house he just left. He was still in a dream. He realized—more shame—that underneath it all he was relieved that he didn’t have to do his Princeton interview today after all.
The day was darkening. The sun was setting already behind the gray shell of cloud that covered Brooklyn. For the first time in an hour he thought about all the things he had left to do today: physics problem set, history paper, e-mail, dishes, laundry. The weight of them was dragging him back down the gravity well of the ordinary world. He would have to explain to his parents what happened, and they would, in some way he could never grasp, and therefore could never properly rebut, make him feel like it was his fault. It would all go back to normal. He thought of Julia and James meeting at the library. She would be working on her Western Civ paper for Mr. Karras, a six-week project she would complete in two sleepless days and nights. As ardently as he wished that she were his, and not James’s, he could never quite imagine how he would win her. In the most plausible of his many fantasies James died, unexpectedly and painlessly, leaving Julia behind to sink softly weeping into his arms.
As he walked Quentin unwound the little red-threaded clasp that held shut the manila envelope. He saw immediately that it wasn’t his transcript, or an official document of any kind. The envelope held a notebook. It was old-looking, its corners squashed and rubbed till they were smooth and round, its cover foxed.
The first page, handwritten in ink, read:
Book Six of Fillory and Further
The ink had gone brown with age. The Magicians was not the name of any book by Christopher Plover that Quentin knew of. And any good nerd knew that there were only five books in the Fillory series.
When he turned the page a piece of white notepaper, folded over once, flew out and slipped away on the wind. It clung to a wrought-iron area fence for a second before the wind whipped it away again.
There was a community garden on the block, a triangular snippet of land too narrow and weirdly shaped to be snapped up by developers. With its ownership a black hole of legal ambiguity, it had been taken over years ago by a collective of enterprising neighbors who had trucked out the acid sand native to Brooklyn and replaced it with rich, fertile loam from upstate. For a while they’d raised pumpkins and tomatoes and spring bulbs and raked out little Japanese serenity gardens, but lately they’d neglected it, and hardy urban weeds had taken root instead. They were running riot and strangling their frailer, more exotic competitors. It was into this tangled thicket that the note flew and disappeared.
This late in the year all the plants were dead or dying, even the weeds, and Quentin waded into them hip-deep, dry stems catching on his pants, his leather shoes crunching brown broken glass. It crossed his mind that the note might just possibly contain the hot paramedic’s phone number. The garden was narrow, but it went surprisingly far back. There were three or four sizable trees in it, and the farther in he pushed the darker and more overgrown it got.
He caught a glimpse of the note, up high, plastered against a trellis encrusted with dead vines. It could clear the back fence before he caught up with it. His phone rang: his dad. Quentin ignored it. Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw something flit past behind the bracken, large and pale, but when he turned his head it was gone. He pushed past the corpses of gladiolas, petunias, shoulder-high sunflowers, rosebushes—brittle, stiff stems and flowers frozen in death into ornate toile patterns.
He would have thought he’d gone all the way through to Seventh Avenue by now. He shoved his way even deeper in, brushing up against who knew what toxic flora. A case of poison fucking ivy, that’s all he needed now. It was odd to see that here and there among the dead plants a few vital green stalks still poked up, drawing sustenance from who knew where. He caught a whiff of something sweet in the air.
He stopped. All of a sudden it was quiet. No car horns, no stereos, no sirens. His phone had stopped ringing. It was bitter cold, and his fingers were numb. Turn back or go on? He squeezed farther in through a hedge, closing his eyes and squinching up his face against the scratchy twigs. He stumbled over something, an old stone. He felt suddenly nauseous. He was sweating.
When he opened his eyes again he was standing on the edge of a huge, wide, perfectly level green lawn surrounded by trees. The smell of ripe grass was overpowering. There was hot sun on his face.
The sun was at the wrong angle. And where the hell were the clouds? The sky was a blinding blue. His inner ear spun sickeningly. He held his breath for a few seconds, then expelled freezing winter air from his lungs and breathed in warm summer air in its place. It was thick with floating pollen. He sneezed.
In the middle distance beyond the wide lawn a large house stood, all honey-colored stone and gray slate, adorned with chimneys and gables and towers and roofs and sub-roofs. In the center, over the main house, was a tall, stately clock tower that struck even Quentin as an odd addition to what otherwise looked like a private residence. The clock was in the Venetian style: a single barbed hand circling a face with twenty-four hours marked on it in Roman numerals. Over one wing rose what looked like the green oxidized-copper dome of an observatory. Between house and lawn was a series of inviting landscaped terraces and spinneys and hedges and fountains.
Quentin was pretty sure that if he stood very still for a few seconds everything would snap back to normal. He wondered if he was undergoing some dire neurological event. He looked cautiously back over his shoulder. There was no sign of the garden behind him, just some big leafy oak trees, the advance guard of what looked like a pretty serious forest. A rill of sweat ran down his rib cage from his left armpit. It was hot.
Quentin dropped his bag on the turf and shrugged out of his overcoat. A bird chirped languidly in the silence. Fifty feet away a tall skinny teenager was leaning against a tree, smoking a cigarette and watching him.
He looked about Quentin’s age. He wore a button-down shirt with a sharp collar and very thin, very pale pink stripes. He didn’t look at Quentin, just dragged on his cigarette and exhaled into the summer air. The heat didn’t seem to bother him.
“Hey,” Quentin called.
Now he looked over. He raised his chin at Quentin, once, but didn’t answer.
Quentin walked over, as nonchalantly as he could. He really didn’t want to look like somebody who had no idea what was going on. Even without his coat on he was sweating like a bastard. He felt like an overdressed English explorer trying to impress a skeptical tropical native. But there was something he had to ask.
“Is this—?” Quentin cleared his throat. “So is this Fillory?” He squinted against the bright sun.
The young man looked at Quentin very seriously. He took another long drag on his cigarette, then he shook his head slowly, blowing out the smoke.
“Nope,” he said. “Upstate New York.”
What People are Saying About This
“The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea. Solidly rooted in the traditions of both fantasy and mainstream literary fiction, the novel tips its hat to Oz and Narnia as well to Harry, but don’t mistake this for a children's book. Grossman’s sensibilities are thoroughly adult, his narrative dark and dangerous and full of twists. Hogwart’s was never like this.”
—George R. R. Martin, bestselling author of A Game of Thrones
“Stirring, complex, adventurous…from the life of Quentin Coldwater, his slacker Park Slope Harry Potter, Lev Grossman delivers superb coming of age fantasy.”
—Junot Díaz, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“The Magicians ought to be required reading for anyone who has ever fallen in love with a fantasy series, or wished that they went to a school for wizards. Lev Grossman has written a terrific, at times almost painfully perceptive novel of the fantastic that brings to mind both Jay McInerney and J. K. Rowling.”
—Kelly Link, author of Magic for Beginners and Stranger Things Happen
“Anyone who grew up reading about magical wardrobes and unicorns and talking trees before graduating to Less Than Zero and The Secret History and Bright Lights, Big City will immediately feel right at home with this smart, beautifully written book by Lev Grossman. The Magicians is fantastic, in all senses of the word. It’s strange, fanciful, extravagant, eccentric, and truly remarkable—a great story, masterfully told.”
—Scott Smith, bestselling author of The Ruins and A Simple Plan
“The Magicians is a spellbinding, fast-moving, dark fantasy book for grownups that feels like an instant classic. I read it in a niffin-blue blaze of page turning, enthralled by Grossman’s verbal and imaginative wizardry, his complex characters, and, most of all, his superb, brilliant inquiry into the wondrous, dangerous world of magic.”
—Kate Christensen, PEN/Faulkner award winning author of The Great Man and The Epicure's Lament
“Remember the last time you ran home to finish a book? This is it, folks. The Magicians is the most dazzling, erudite, and thoughtful fantasy novel to date. You’ll be bedazzled by the magic but also brought short by what it has to sayabout the world we live in.”
—Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook
“The Magicians brilliantly explores the hidden underbelly of fantasy and easy magic, taking what’s simple on the surface and turning it over to show us the complicated writhing mess beneath. It’s like seeing the worlds of Narnia and Harry Potter through a 3-D magnifying glass.”
—Naomi Novik, author of His Majesty’s Dragon
“Sad, hilarious, beautiful & essential to anyone who cares about modern fantasy.”
—Joe Hill, author of Horns and Locke & Key
“Most people will like this book. But there’s a certain type of reader who will enjoy it down to the bottoms of their feet.”
—Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind
“If you like the Harry Potter books … you should also read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians series, which is a very knowing and wonderful take on the wizard school genre.”
—John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars
—William Gibson, author of Neuromancer
“Fresh and compelling…The Magicians is a great fairy tale, written for grown-ups but appealing to our most basic desires for stories to bring about some re-enchantment with the world, where monsters lurk but where a young man with a little magic may prevail.”
“The Magicians is original…slyly funny.”
“Lev Grossman’s playful fantasy novel The Magicians pays homage to a variety of sources…with such verve and ease that you quickly forget the references and lose yourself in the story.”
—O, The Oprah Magazine
“I felt like I was poppin’ peyote buttons with J. K. Rowling when I was reading Lev Grossman’s new novel The Magicians.…I couldn’t put it down.”
—Mickey Rapkin, GQ
“The novel manages a literary magic trick: it’s both an enchantingly written fantasy and a moving deconstruction of enchantingly realized fantasies.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Intriguing, coming-of-age fantasy”
—Boston Globe (Pick of the Week)
“The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a very entertaining book; one of those summer page-turners that you wish went on for another six volumes. Grossman takes a good number of the best childhood fantasy books from the last seventy-five years and distills their ability to fascinate into the fan-boy mind of his protagonist, Quentin Coldwater.… There is no doubt that this book is inventive storytelling and Grossman is at the height of his powers.”
“Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians may just be the most subversive, gripping, and enchanting fantasy novel I’ve read this century…. Grossman is a hell of a pacer, and the book rips along, whole seasons tossed out in a single sentence, all the boring mortar ground off the bricks, so that the book comes across as a sheer, seamless face that you can’t stop yourself from tumbling down once you launch yourself off the first page. This isn’t just an exercise in exploring what we love about fantasy and the lies we tell ourselves about it—it’s a shit-kicking, gripping, tightly plotted novel that makes you want to take the afternoon off work to finish it.”
—Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing
“An irresistible storytelling momentum makes The Magicians a great summer book, both thoughtful and enchanting.”
“Grossman skillfully moves us through four years of school and a postgraduate adventure, never letting the pace slacken…beguiling.”
“Through sheer storytelling grace and imaginative power, Lev Grossman [creates] an adventure that’s both enthralling and mature.”
“Sly and lyrical, [The Magicians] captures the magic of childhood and the sobering years beyond.”
“Mixing the magic of the most beloved children's fantasy classics (from Narnia and Oz to Harry Potter and Earthsea) with the sex, excess, angst, and anticlimax of life in college and beyond, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians reimagines modern-day fantasy for grown-ups. [It] breathes life into a cast of characters you want to know…and does what [some] claim books never really manage to do: ‘get you out, really out, of where you were and into somewhere better.’ Or if not better, at least a heck of a lot more interesting.”
“This gripping novel draws on the conventions of contemporary and classic fantasy novels in order to upend them, and tell a darkly cunning story about the power of imagination itself. [The Magicians is] an unexpectedly moving coming-of-age story.”
—The New Yorker
“Fantasy fans can’t afford to miss the darkly comic and unforgettably queasy experience of reading this book—and be glad for reality.”
—Booklist (Starred Review)
“This is a book for grown-up fans of children’s fantasy and would appeal to those who loved Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Highly recommended.”
—Library Journal (Starred Review)
“Very dark and very scary, with no simple answers provided—fantasy for grown-ups, in other words, and very satisfying indeed.”
Reading Group Guide
Brilliant, restless, and possessed of a GPA “higher than most people even realize it is possible for a GPA to be” (p. 5), Quentin Coldwater is on the fast track to an Ivy League college and a lifetime of enviable if predictable successes—or so he thinks. The seventeen-year-old high school senior also has an obsession with magic and a series of children’s books set in a fantasy land called Fillory that will soon transport him into a hidden world that at once vindicates and challenges his wildest dreams.
It’s a cold, windy afternoon in November when Quentin is en route to his Princeton admissions interview in the company of his best friends, James and Julia. As usual, he is unhappily nursing the resentment and lust he respectively harbors for them. But his brooding is interrupted when they arrive at the alumnus’s well-appointed home and discover his would-be interviewer dead. Within moments, Quentin is forced to realize that nothing is what it seems, and that reality itself is suspect.
A disarmingly sexy paramedic, a plain manila envelope, and a whipping wind lead Quentin from a chilly Brooklyn twilight to the warmth of a summer day in the country. Has he been whisked away to Fillory? No. But Quentin has entered a secret world so exclusive that even though geographically located in upstate New York, it is invisible to the uninitiated. After a rigorous, if somewhat peculiar, afternoon of tests and interviews, Quentin is offered admission to Brakebills, the only college of magic in North America.
At first, Brakebills’ hyper-exclusive education offers Quentin much of what he longed for: the camaraderie of like-minded misfits, challenging academic pursuits, and the confirmation that magic is very, very real. Along with his new friends—foppish and acerbic Eliot, competitive and thin-skinned Penny, and the preternaturally gifted Alice—Quentin studies the art of sorcery. But with power comes risks, and a practical joke gone awry invites “the beast,” a malicious entity from another world, into all their lives.
However, like students at more pedestrian institutions, Quentin finds that both the joys and fears he’s discovered at Brakebills have palled and he is again restless and dissatisfied. After graduation, Quentin joins a group of similarly jaded fellows in Manhattan, where he embraces a nihilistic bacchanalian lifestyle that threatens to destroy the one relationship he cherishes most.
Just as Quentin commits his worst act of betrayal, Penny appears with astonishing news: he’s been to Fillory and can take them all. Galvanized by Penny’s discovery, the coterie of young magicians mobilizes for adventure in the land of talking animals, nature spirits, and old gods. But while the landscape is just as fantastic as his worn paperbacks have described, the journey is more perilous and the hand that governs Fillory more malevolent than Quentin could ever have imagined.
Exploring universal issues of adolescent angst and alienation through a prism of magic, The Magicians is a brilliantly imagined fantasy adventure that is as mesmerizing as it is intelligent. Using the beloved novels of C. S. Lewis, T. H. White, and J. K. Rowling as a springboard, bestselling author Lev Grossman unspools a riveting coming-of-age tale in which magic is as fallible and mercurial as the humans that wield it.
ABOUT LEV GROSSMAN
Lev Grossman is a senior writer and the book critic for Time magazine and the author of the bestselling novel Codex. His writings have appeared in Lingua Franca, The Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, Time Out New York, Salon, and The New York Times. He holds degrees in comparative literature from Harvard and Yale. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
A CONVERSATION WITH LEV GROSSMAN
Q. Your previous novel, Codex, is a thriller about a fourteenth-century manuscript and a sinister high-tech computer game. What is it that interests you about the intersection of contemporary life and fantasy?
I think I’ve always been interested in that intersection, even before I had any kind of proper vocabulary for talking about it. Which implies that I have one now, probably wrongly. But let me try to explain what interests me about fantasies and, really, stories in general. When we read books and watch television or movies, we’re seeing representations of people’s lives. And I always wondered, even as a little kid, why does my life, which superficially resembles a life in a story, feel so different from a life in a story? Lives in stories are exciting and vivid and meaningful. Real lives are chaotic and disorganized and frequently boring, and that feeling of meaningfulness comes and goes, out of your control. It’s hard to hang on to. Why doesn’t life feel more like a story? Like a fantasy? I don’t know. But now, at a time in history when we spend so much of our waking life being entertained by stories, I wonder that even more.
Q. Is The Magicians a critique of or an homage to our collective need for fantasy worlds?
Definitely not a critique. That sounds a bit scoldy. Especially coming from somebody with as active a fantasy life as mine. If it’s between critique and homage, I’ll go with homage. But I think the appropriate book-reviewing cliché would be that it’s “a meditation on” our collective need for fantasy worlds. I am in love with fantasy and fantasies of all kinds, I always have been, but it’s a bittersweet romance, because when you try to really consummate it—when you try to take the fantasy out of the realm of the imaginary, and really live it—very bad things can happen. As they do to poor Quentin.
Q. How do you think being the son of two English professors affected your relationship with literature?
Oh, in every possible way. My parents were a bit like those tennis parents who start drilling their kids on the court when they’re about two, with the idea of creating some kind of inhumanly precocious tennis prodigy. Mine were very aggressive about exposing me to the finer sorts of books early on, with the idea of turning me—and my brother and sister—into teenage super-literati. Then my father made the mistake of reading me The Hobbit, and at a stroke all their careful work was undone. From then on I made a point of immersing myself in anything and everything that annoyed and disappointed them: fantasy, science fiction, comic books, video games. But the funny thing was, I learned from them a lot about how to read a book carefully and respectfully and critically. And I think I brought that critical scholarly approach to my reading. I just read all the wrong things.
Q. You have a degree in comparative literature from Harvard but dropped out before getting your Ph.D. from Yale. What made you decide not to become an academic yourself?
I can’t even remember what made me decide I wanted to be one in the first place. Except that I was unemployed and wanted to read books and talk about them as much as possible. Which I did get to do, and I loved it. But I knew from watching my parents that the life of an academic was not a glamorous one. It is frequently an underpaid and inglorious one. Except for the superstars, and it quickly became apparent that I wasn’t going to be one of those.
Q. What was your inspiration for The Magicians? Were you, like Quentin, the kind of “nerd” who’s read and re-read The Chronicles of Narnia and The Once and Future King multiple times?
Is there any other kind of nerd? There were a lot of inspirations for The Magicians. Of course, I did all those things, and still do them. I suppose on one level I was trying to bring together the literary sensibilities of the Modernist writers I studied in graduate school, and the glorious escapism of the fantasy novels that I love, and mash them up together into one perfect book, where they would be forced to sit down and talk to each other. On another level I was going through a difficult time personally (divorce) and having a lot of fantasies about other, better worlds that I might possibly escape to. On still another level, it was 2004, and we were in the long two-year trough between Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and I badly wanted something new to read. So badly that I decided to write something myself.
Q. How would you compare the C. S. Lewis and T. H. White books to those by J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman?
Very broadly speaking—very very broadly—I think the shift from Lewis and White (and for that matter Tolkien) to writers like Rowling and Pullman has to do with the gradual separation of fantasy from religion, specifically from Christianity. In Lewis and White, most of your supernatural power comes from God. There may be magic in the picture—Digory’s uncle Andrew is a magician, and of course there’s the White Witch—but the mightiest power is a mystical, spiritual Christian force. In Pullman and Rowling magic is the only power we see. There is no divine force. In Pullman’s universe magic comes from dust. Rowling’s understanding of magic is more difficult to theorize, but it is evidently tied in closely with human emotions like love and hate, rather than any deity. God may or may not exist in Harry’s world, but if he does he has withdrawn, and doesn’t interfere directly. Magic is a secular power. One of the ambitions of The Magicians is to crash these two world-views, the secular and the divine fantasy, into each other with maximum force.
Q. Do you think today’s young readers are very different from the first generation of readers to discover Narnia?
Probably? But I’d rather not speculate about how. My daughter is five, still too young for Narnia, but I plan to watch her closely as she starts to read fantasy. I’ve tried to explain about Harry Potter to her, but she keeps insisting she wants to be in Slytherin.
Q. The Chronicles of Narnia are superbly written but thinly veiled Christian parables. Did you intend to convey any similar lessons with The Magicians? Is Alice Aslan?
Well, I think it’s a bit of a red herring to call the Narnia books Christian parables. They exemplify some Christian virtues, certainly. But they’re pretty thickly veiled. And to me the veil is the most interesting part. As for The Magicians, it’s not a parable of any kind. You could probably (I’ve never tried) divide novels into two camps, those that try to build up theories and lessons, and those that explore the way that life is often too messy and difficult and cruel to fit any theories or lessons. The Magicians is in the second camp. Now that I’ve said all that: there is a character in The Magicians who teaches Quentin a very hard lesson about self-sacrifice. But you’ll notice that unlike Aslan, she hasn’t quite mastered the trick of coming back to life afterwards.
Q. “Some of the student body went into public service. . . . A lot of people just traveled, or created magical artworks, or staged elaborate sorcerous war games. . . . Some students even chose to matriculate at a regular, non-magical university” (p. 184). What would you do if you had a degree from Brakebills?
I could see myself getting involved in environmental causes. I like the idea of using magic to save, for example, tree frogs. But I love the idea of a massive global sorcerous war game, too. I hope I would have time for both. Even if I were a wizard, I’d still be a huge nerd.
Q. You never reveal what Penny and Quentin’s disciplines are. Why is that? What do you imagine they are?
Not quite true. Penny’s being truthful when he says his discipline is interdimensional travel. It’s downplayed in the novel, but it was really quite a feat on his part to get to the Neitherlands without a button. As for Quentin—I’ll be honest, I like a novel to have a dangling thread or two in it. I always allow myself at least one. Quentin’s discipline is my one for The Magicians.
Q. What are you working on now?
The sequel to The Magicians. I’m not done with Fillory yet, it’s a big world. Or with Quentin. He was just getting interesting.