Ever wished to be in a Harry Potter novel? Lev Grossman explores the downsides of that wish in his anti-fantasy novel, The Magicians (Plume 2009). Magic turns out to be more boring, more complex and less uplifting than anyone might have hoped. And to its credit, when the violence in this novel occurs, (what little there is), you cringe, reminding you that, no, you really DON’T want to be Harry Potter fighting Voldemort.
What makes the book brilliant, is its meditation on the nature and purpose of magic: “‘Use magic in anger,’ warns the dean of the magical college where Quentin Coldwater and his friends train, ‘and you will harm yourself much more quickly than you will harm your adversary. There are certain spells … if you lose control of them, they will change you'” (88).
Later, the novel expounds on the danger of magic from a different angle, when the Quentin is undergoing the final college trial, traveling 500 miles to the south pole with nothing to protect him but magic. Having created a bubble of warmth around himself and added strength and speed to his legs, he cruises endless snow, remembering another teacher’s advice: “Once you reach a certain level of fluency as a spellcaster, you will begin to manipulate reality freely … your spells will one day come … almost automatically, but with very little in the way of conscious effort…For the true magician there is no very clear line between what lies inside the mind and what lies outside it. If you desire it, it will become substance. If you despise it, you will see it destroyed. A master magician is not much different from a child or a mad man I that respect. It takes a very clear head and a very strong will to operate once you are in that place” (161). The fantastical concept of magic stems from the real power of naming and speech, which can make present that which is absent, and Grossman identifies this core truth here.
What follows is a beautiful passage, “The stars burned shrilly overhead with impossible force and beauty. Quentin jogged with his head up, knees high no longer feeling anything below his waist, gloriously isolated, lost in the spectacle. He became nothing, a running wraith, a wisp of warm flesh in a silent universe of midnight frost” (162).
These kinds of passages compelled me to stay with the book. But my progress was made torturous by Quentin’s blockheadedness and the shallowness of his friends. Aptly named Coldwater, Quentin pours cold water on everything. While we can all relate to his search for happiness, I kept hoping he would figure out that happiness isn’t the point of life; it’s a poor substitute for fulfillment, the occasional side effect of living a life of purpose, which, according to Daniel Pink’s book Drive, is an inherent need.
But neither Quentin nor any of his friends develop any sense of purpose. Not one of them ever says to themselves, “Gee, maybe I could make the world a better place with this tool.” It’s downright odd. The only characters who come close, Quentin’s girlfriend, Alice, and his non-friend, Penny, get punished. Alice, by far the best character in the book, ends up with a bit part.
I’m not exactly criticizing the book for this, because Grossman made me care, and though it was slow, I was willing to flog myself to finish it and felt bereft when it was over. (The flog-marks are fading, thank you very much.)
So I’d say Grossman’s novel, the first of a trilogy, does what the best books do, re-defining and deepening its genre. But he uses too many adjectives (hint from a reformed adjective addict, don’t use more than one per noun on a regular basis). Also, we don’t need to see the main character going over the same ground 25 times.