No. 12: The Magicians
Discounting comics, The Magicians is only the third piece of fiction I’ve read this year, after reading only one novel in 2009. One of the reasons is that fiction isn’t easily read in short pieces over a long period, which is about the only way I can get any pleasure reading into my schedule during school. I was fortunate enough to get a brief vacation over Memorial Day, and was able to sit down with this one for a few hour-long stretches.
Quentin, a high school senior, is a first-rate genius. As happens with most unusually smart high school students, he doesn’t succeed socially—in fact, he’s a depressive wreck. He escapes the melancholy of his real life by fleeing to Fillory, which is basically Narnia without all the religious over- and undertones. It serves as Quentin’s place of refuge when the disappointments of life get the better of him.
His other escape is magic. Not the real thing, of course, but the illusions, deception, and sleight of hand that we call magic. As it turns out, Quentin was, in fact, doing real magic—he just didn’t realize. Someone picked up on it, though, and he suddenly found himself on the campus of Brakebills, a highly selective academy for the practice of (real) magic.
I can’t reveal much more of the story without spoiling the plot, but it’s the theme that is most interesting to me. The Magicians is self-aware in its similarities to and departures from the Harry Potter series. The common threads are the plucking of a depressed and underappreciated adolescent from his depressing and underappreciated life, to be suddenly immersed in a beautiful world of magic, where he feels the possibility that his fondest dreams might come true.
The major departure is that, while Harry is ever the selfless, optimistic hero, Quentin is very nearly the guy in every war movie who you hope gets shot or steps on a land mine. Unfortunately you know that your favorite character will probably die saving him from his own stupidity and myopia. Somehow Grossman manages to make him likable.
Quentin spends is life looking out into the world for what will save him. He looks to college, to magic, to love and sex. He wants happiness, and he’s willing to search for it anywhere, but he never seems to find it, because he doesn’t realize that the wrong he’s trying to right is internal. His unhappiness is not situational, it’s psychological, which is why he constantly sabotages every opportunity he gets.
In the end we don’t know if Q will ever change, but the hope is there, “faith in spite of evidence” (*spoilers!*). Grossman’s message may be that the way we deal with depression and disappointment is to walk headlong into fantasy and hope for the best. Whether or not this is how we should deal with it is a question left to the reader.
I found Grossman’s prose to be intelligent, engaging, and well-constructed. Though I was angry disappointed with some of the plot developments, they were the only way the story could have gone and stayed true to form; each event played its role in the development of the theme, and the whole, without those parts, would have suffered. I enjoyed the reading experience thoroughly, and will probably read The Magicians again.