One of the greatest things about the Harry Potter books is that the protagonist grows up.
We can see it happening right in front of us. One minute he’s just glad to see a feast; the next minute, he’s blushing every time he sees Cho Chang.
But by the end of the books … was I the only one who felt the last chapter was a little too easy?
Maybe this is just my jaded adult self talking … but (SPOILERS) Harry ends up with Ginny, Hermione ends up with Ron, they all have beautiful kids and good jobs, they’re all hale and hearty. They’ve definitely earned their rest after everything they went through as teenagers, but if we read the books as war narratives, then it’s tough to read about a war in excruciating detail and then the narrative ends on the last day of the war. Real wars don’t end that neatly. There are repairs to make, criminals to deal with, counseling to go through, bureaucracies to restructure. When a narrative ignores that process, it can cheapen the whole conflict by making it seem like not such a big deal after all.
Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is a story for people who want a bit more of that gritty realism. In addition, Grossman dances on the genre of wizard-school fiction without seeming at all like a Rowling copycat — on the contrary, he seems to take great glee in creating a world that’s almost the precise opposite of the golden aura seen in the early Harry Potter books. The main wizard in The Magicians is Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant high school student from New York City, who is on his way to a Princeton interview when he is stalled by a sudden death and an unexpected note — and then derailed entirely by an impossible trip to a bizarre place called Brakebills, which is, as the professors explain it to him during the day-long entrance exam, a college for magic.
So there’s a clear break between the Harry Potter series and The Magicians: since Grossman has set his story in a university, his characters can be grittier — and they are, complete with plenty of alcohol and trysts. At the beginning of Quentin’s term, there’s precious little of the warmth and camaraderie we see in Hogwarts; Brakebills draws its students from the smartest kids in America, and what do you get when you cram a hundred geniuses together and give them a new skill to master? Competition — fierce, cutthroat competition, of a variety we don’t really glimpse at Hogwarts, not even during a Gryffindor–Slytherin Quidditch match. And if you want to know the difference between Harry and Quentin in a few sentences, here it is, in a quote from Quentin’s introduction to Brakebills:
“Suppose it really was a school for magic. Was it any good? What if he’d stumbled into some third-tier magic college by accident? He had to think practically. He didn’t want to be committing himself to some community college of sorcery when he could have Magic Harvard or whatever.”
So Quentin matriculates at Brakebills and begins his studies, eventually gathering a small band of friends around himself. They all study for five years, graduate, … and then what? At this point, my appreciation for Grossman reached a new height: he understood exactly what it was like to feel caught in suspended animation after graduating, and he portrayed it to a T. Then Quentin and his friends finally decide on a course of action: they’re going to try to find a mythical land they’ve all longed to visit, and getting there and back is going to take the most daring, strength, and skill they can conjure up.
The Magicians is the first book in (I believe) a trilogy, but even just as a standalone book, it works pretty well. There’s imagination, detail, believable emotions, lyricism, and continually compelling reasons to keep reading. I recommend it for all sorts — HP fans, non-HP fans, literary fiction enthusiasts, hard-core fantasy readers, and casual readers. Much like Hogwarts or Brakebills, there really is something in The Magicians for everyone.