The Magicians

by Lev Grossman

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation, smart reviews for modern readers on Sirius XM Book Radio. The book is The Magicians by Lev Grossman.

Youth is wasted on the young — I think the older you are, the more crystal this becomes. Even as our memories of the joys and agonies of those years lose their focus and become, well, misty and water colored, we know beyond a doubt we would make better teenagers than those punks running around today. And nowhere is this more true than the island of misfit toys that get to be the heroes and heroines of fantasy novels. They either mope or swagger. They’re arrogant or they’re spineless. Can’t they see that the Dark Forces are just using them?Ê Any one of us would make a better student at Hogwarts than Harry’s friends (except Hermoine, who is perfect).Ê And who in their right mind would want to leave the Emerald City for Kansas? I could do a better job, if you put the magic in my hand. I know I could.

That’s what Lev Grossman started to think as he read and reread Narnia and Tolkien. (Grossman has a bad case of the What Ifs.) What if you could go to Hogwarts, or ride against Sauron? In The Magicians, Grossman cleverly makes his students collegiate rather than adolescent, so the temptations of the teen years are amplified by their budding magical ability. They drink, swear and sleep around, they are generally unpleasant to each other, but they all understand they are in the presence of the unreal, and they respect that even if they don’t respect each other, or themselves.

The first section of this book takes place at the exclusive-to-the-point-of-invisibility Brakebills, where students sweat blood learning that magic is difficult, boring and possible. Quentin, our hero, is unusually gifted but a brooder of epic proportions. He’s obsessed with Fillory, the Narnia stand in of his youth. The second half of the book, where things pick up, takes us to Fillory, which is more difficult, complicated and dangerous than Quentin ever suspected.

I feel like I should apologize to Lev for repeatedly asking him why Quentin was such a pill, when he was so nice about reminding me that the character was based on none other than a teenage Lev himself. To be fair, if given the chance to star in my own fantasy adventure, I’d like to think I’d sit up straight, pay attention, and not whine, but more likely I’d be the first one eaten by an orc.

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