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The MagiciansThe Magicians by Lev Grossman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reading The Magicians is a curious experience for someone of my generation, who was raised on a steady diet of Harry Potter with some Narnia, Alice, and other luminaries of the magical fantasy literary canon sprinkled in. In an appropriate simile, it’s a bit like ingesting a bezoar; you feel violently ill at some points, and the feeling is akin to vomiting, but after it’s all done with, the cleansing catharsis one feels is unparalleled.

I’m not grasping at straws here, Grossman is very aware that with a book about a magical school in this day and age, he’s entering territory saturated with Harry’s presence. He even jokes about it a few times, with one professor of the magical school noting that this was not the type of magic where one could wave a wand and recite made-up Latin in order to get results, and it’s fairly obvious that Quentin, our protagonist, has read the books. This makes him highly relatable, he is not unlike the people who are going to pick up The Magicians: bored, intelligent, perceptive young adults who crave something to relieve the mundane monotony of their existence. His creation by Grossman is equal parts Harry, Edmund Pevensie, Ariel the Mermaid, Jonathan Strange, and Ender Wiggin.

The book functions as a deconstruction of these other works, as a coming of age story, and as an answer to the probing questions surrounding fantasy that are not family-friendly or redeeming enough for the likes of good-hearted fantasy or whimsical Christian allegories. Ennui, hedonism, sexual frustration, and the most painful parts of realizing adulthood are all examined here in excruciating detail. It leaves you, should you be one of the Hogwarts graduates, with a sense of lingering anxiety and the desire to examine yourself and the type of person you’ve become more deeply than ever before.

This is quite the feat for such a simple story, it’s deceptively nondescript on the surface, with Quentin learning that he’s been selected to try for an exam into a magic academy. Quentin passes, and finds himself in Brakebills, a magic academy nestled somewhere in the belly of New York, inaccessible unless you know where to look and what to look for. The magic lessons here are emotionally, intellectually, and physically gruelling, involving forays into obscure, dead languages, physics, and other, more esoteric studies. It’s certainly not what he expected after a steady childhood of Fillory, a series of magic books set in a world not unlike Narnia, but it gives him a buzz he was lacking in his depressingly ordinary overachiever’s life in Brooklyn.

Quentin’s ecstasy over magical studies wears off though, even after (or perhaps because of) how intensive Grossman’s type of magic is, and he finds himself falling into the specific misery of boredom and dissatisfaction once again. Magic had not solved his problems, but the way this old chestnut is presented to us is quite refreshing, so I don’t mind learning that lesson over again.

The path which this dissatisfaction and the choices Quentin and the other characters make is interesting and difficult to swallow; it’s too much to encompass in a single review. It doesn’t stop with Quentin though, there’s an entire universe of Grossman’s making coming together in this book which I hope the sequel will touch more upon. Within this universe are some of the most human, and therefore the most interesting, characters to come into existence.

The Magicians isn’t what I’d call a pleasurable read, nor is it an escapist’s read. It’s gritty, melancholy, and cerebral, and you’ll be left with both an aversion to anything indulgent and the desire for a good stiff drink. It’s worth the painful journey, but taking many pit stops along the way to absorb what’s being read is highly recommended, along with the warning that a magical journey isn’t always one of joy, and an adventure isn’t always the good romp one may think.

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