‘The Magicians’ fails to do its magic

Courtesy of 2 writs

Warning: This article contains spoilers for “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman.

“You shouldn’t dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

Albus Dumbledore imparts this wisdom to an 11-year-old Harry Potter in ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’, as Harry risks developing an obsession with the Mirror of Erised, a magical artifact that reveals the darkest desire of the spectator. Harry sees his parents dead and he must learn to prioritize the life he has over the life he has lost. It’s a lesson Quentin Coldwater, the 18-year-old protagonist of Lev Grossman’s urban fantasy novel, “The Magicians,” would do well to learn.

‘The Magicians’, originally released in 2009 and now a hit TV series on Syfy, is critically acclaimed; even George RR Martin, the current king of fantasy epics, enthuses on the back of the book: “‘The Magicians’ is to ‘Harry Potter’ what a glass of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea… Hogwarts is not has never been like this.” Naturally, that quote was catnip to my little Ravenclaw heart; I grabbed “The Magicians” and set it on top of my textbooks, where it patiently sat until winter break. As someone deeply shaped by fantasy both in my youth – I grew up in the medieval worlds of McKinley’s “The Blue Sword” and Pierce’s “Protector of the Small”, the criminal master plans of “Artemis Fowl ” and the magic tongues of “Inkheart”, the allegorical escape of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “The Chronicles of Narnia”, and, of course, “Harry Potter” – and by more modern variants and darker fairy tales like the works of Neil Gaiman, “The Magicians” and I seemed like a direct match.

“The Magicians” is the story of Quentin Coldwater, a math prodigy turned hobby wizard who is accepted into Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. (How many synonyms for “witchcraft” or “witchcraft” can the collective public come up with? We have the Beauxbatons Academy of Magic, the decree for the reasonable restriction of witchcraft among minors…something else?) Quentin doesn’t is not so secretly obsessed with a set of children’s fantasy novels, “Fillory and Further,” a Narnia-like saga featuring five siblings that underpins much of the book’s dramatic structure. Like Quentin, I hoped his acceptance into Brakebills would be the catalyst for heroic feats filled with vulnerability, courage, forbearance, grief, and empathy; I wanted the human in the guise of the fanciful.

But we were all deceived; instead of exploring “hedonism and disillusion,” as the blurb teases, or even just frolicking in the sandbox of literary fantasy, “The Magicians” borrows too liberally from its Narnian and wizarding ancestors. without giving them the seriousness they deserve. Magic is originally conceptualized but described in broad, non-specific strokes; Fillory’s story is a blatant rip-off of the Pevensies’ plot. There is a difference between homage and imitation, a distinction which Grossman, it seems, cannot or will not appreciate; the novel is nothing more than a Rowling-Lewis hybrid ice-cold “nervousness” in order to appeal to an adult audience. This “shot of Irish whiskey” certainly burns in the reader’s throat in the form of flippant remarks such as “Impromptu orgies weren’t unheard of” or “They had all the power in the world, and no work to do, and no one to stop them,” but these brief forays into debauchery have no bearing on the book as a whole. Quentin’s moral decline seems superficial, detached from the very perspective he professes to chronicle—all the more that Quentin never struck me as a moralistic character in the first place. He’s a coward; even Alice, Quentin’s girlfriend, spits in a fit of anger, “Quentin…you were always the most amazing pussy.” (I don’t like that Grossman has a female character who uses “pussy” pejoratively, but I digress.)

Quentin, like most people at one time or another, asserts that he is made for more than mediocrity. He thinks that “his real life, the life he should be living, has been misguided by a clerical error of cosmic bureaucracy. It couldn’t be that. He was diverted somewhere else, to someone else, and given this shitty substitute fake life instead. I recognize the irony in how my own disillusionment with the novel reflects Quentin’s dissatisfaction with real life, but if Quentin defends Fillory as a world in which “things mattered way they didn’t in this world” and if Grossman fails to convince the reader that the same is true of “The Magicians”, then the author is wasting his one thread of thematic truth. If Grossman subtly criticizes Quentin’s beliefs, he again fails; what good is literature if it only perpetuates its own uselessness?

Quentin himself is bland and narcissistic, ungenerous in the manner of the “nice” and critical under the guise of sophistication. His obnoxious intellectualism and sexual exploits are, I guess, meant to be interesting, and yet all they do is make him obsess over himself. His defining character traits are his disillusionment and selfish restlessness, his personalized brand of entitlement; he never comes out of his request for more from the universe. He ignores true intimacy because of an inappropriate superiority complex; he even complains that his crush’s kindness makes it harder for him to deal with her rejection, because “somehow it made it worse that she was always so nice to him”.

Alice, Quentin’s love interest and closest in “The Magicians” to a Hermione, is the best character in the book; she is driven, secretive, hurt, talented, jealous, superior, self-sacrificing. Eliot and Julia, Quentin’s friends from Brakebills and Brooklyn, respectively, are the finalists, and neither gets the attention they deserve as supporting characters. Eliot is sardonic, desperate, thoughtful, self-determined, genuine, but readers only get a glimpse of him since Quentin is uninterested in Eliot’s psyche; Julia’s dramatic about-face from overachieving schoolgirl to fragile, paranoid hedge witch also takes place almost entirely outside of Quentin’s script. “The Magicians” reminds me of “Twilight” in that its supporting players are far more compelling than its supposed protagonist.

The novel gropes between free indirect discourse and factual narration, oscillating without warning between Quentin’s silent monologue and a sort of sequential omniscience. Plots are picked up or abandoned with abandon. In brief dialogue, Quentin soothingly calls Alice “Vix”; apparently “‘Vix’ was a term of endearment with them…an allusion to their Antarctic interlude [in which they became a couple].” This nickname never appears again in the novel. James, who we’re introduced to in detail and who we’re supposed to believe is both friend and adversary to Quentin, completely evaporates from the plot. A whole six-month stretch of Quentin’s time at Brakebills is just…ignored. In a book about the pursuit of self-fulfillment and a higher purpose, characters are revealed to be pawns in someone else’s plan, and matters of individual choice are rendered inconsequential.

The text is witty. It’s well written. There have been times when I have been amazed, impressed or upset. Grossman neatly connects the wandering narratives. Sadly, none of this redeems “The Magicians” for its failure to be “a book that d[oes] what the books always promise… to get you, really, out of where you were and into a better place. Unlike “Fillory and Further”, “The Magicians” is exactly what Quentin feared it would become: a mediocre replica of something meaningful.

Contact Claire Francis as claire97 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Brian L. Hartfield