I wanted to talk about Lev Grossman’s Magicians series a bit without totally spoilering the action. So instead I thought I’d a sort of overview via the idea of stories. There’s a (slightly shorter) video version which you can watch or feel free to skip it and read the discussion below. Or do both, I won’t judge you.
First a really quick overview just so you’re not totally lost. The Magicians trilogy is made up of The Magicians, The Magician King, and The Magician’s Land and they sort of centre around a guy called Quentin Coldwater. They are fantasy books that take place partly in our modern day world but where magic exists secretly just like in Harry Potter or whatever. And partly in a completely magical parallel land called Fillory which only a few people ever discover. Fillory is basically Narnia and like Narnia it featured in a beloved series of children’s books. Except that y’know, it turns out that Fillory is actually real.
The writing in these books is fantastic. Grossman is a very clever guy and his writing reflects it. These aren’t trad fanatsy or even urban fantasy. They mix a literary fiction style with fantasy’s epic plots, and some pop culture insouciance. The characters are realistic – they swear, they quote TV shows, hell they even quote Harry Potter (and I love it when fantasy characters are actually aware of the existence of fantasy books), and they relate each other with the studied, scared indifference of true millenials.
For me, these stories are all about how stories affect our lives and how we learn to deal with reality and growing up and relationship partly with their help, but partly through accepting that they are not, and cannot, truly reflect reality.
The first book explores some famous escapist fantasy stories – the magical schools like Harry Potter and the magical land like Narnia. And it shows us how a reality based in those stories would be very different and very very dangerous. We, the reader, experience this through Quentin and his fellow wizards. It begins as they’re accepted into a secret magical university. So far, so Harry Potter. And the characters know that too, they love it and love acting like it; reading mysterious tomes in the library and playing bizarre sports (fuck me magical boarding schools are so pretentious, Eton Wall game anyone?). But then, maybe 1/3 of the way through book one they graduate from magical university. And well, then what?
That’s when Harry Potter conveniently jumps forward twenty years past all that floundering when you try to figure out what the hell it is you’re meant to be doing with your life. Whereas Lev Grossman just dives right in to the epic fuckup that is a bunch of super intelligent, over privileged kids in their early twenties let loose on a world with almost unlimited magical powers. Let’s just say that it isn’t pretty. And then Quentin experiences this disconnect between the stories and the reality of them again when he discovers that his beloved Fillory, the Narnia like land from his childhood books, is real. But living there is far more dangerous and monstrous and down right awful than he could possibly imagined.
The second book continues this idea as we see Quentin yet again trying to mould his life to be like a story by deciding to set off on A Heroic Quest to a far off island. Exactly what he’s questing for neither we, or he, are quite sure. It turns out that the quest is not only not quite what he expected, he’s not even really the main character in this story.
Because the other half of this book is all about Janet who was rejected from magical university at the start of book one. But we now get to see her life, the life of someone who is so often left out these magical land stories. Someone who didn’t fall through the wardrobe in their giant mansion, who didn’t get invited to the upper-middle class haven of magical boarding school, who was rejected, who fought and hurt and broke. This is the untold story.
The final book is where we see Quentin finally beginning to relinquish this idea of living in stories, where he finds out the truth behind them, the human cost, the flawed architects of their creation. And there’s adventure and intrigue both within Fillory and outside it. In fact the final book allows us to revisit most of the characters and locations seen in the first two books – we the readers, and Quentin, reexamine them with older, more experienced, eyes. They are no longer features with Quentin’s mental hero-narrative but at once more complex and nuanced, and much more simple and mundane.
Grossman revels and celebrates the power that books have over us, how they provide us with an escape and their power to shape how we think about the world. But it’s something of a cautionary tale, to not attempt to abandon reality or to neglect the real people in your life. It takes Quentin to his late twenties and well into the third book to realise this.
Honestly trying to explain these books without going into the plot is a bit difficult but I don’t want to be too spoilery because they are wonderful things to experience for yourself. But be warned, these aren’t like Harry Potter, they aren’t YA, and they most certainly aren’t nice. The characters aren’t nice and the things that happen aren’t nice. There’s sex, drugs, extreme violence, death, and rape. A lot of people loathe Quentin – he is a whiny, miserable, self-pitying, self-centred, prick – but I thought that was brilliant. This isn’t the hero anyone is looking for, he’s me on my very worst days, he doesn’t deserve what he gets, but damnit that works so well. And Janet, dear god, if you ever wanted a badass heroine then here she is. She’s broken and messed up but she knows her shit and I do love a good brain.
So there you go, nasty messed up people with magic and stories and three fucking beautiful books. Lev Grossman, I salute you.