October 30, 2009

The Magicians

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I finished reading Lev Grossman's new novel, The Magicians, a few days ago, and I've been mentally revisiting it since. The book is like nothing I've read before -- a modern examination of the tropes of childhood fantasy, while still dramatizing the fantastic adventures being deconstructed.

That makes The Magicians sound far more dry and academic than it is. But it works foremost as a magical fantasy for those who are already aware of fantasy, who might have spent time considering their reactions to how they'd cope with being thrust into a separate magical world. It's as if Dorothy Gale, the Pensevie children, and Harry Potter weren't surprised by their relocation . . . Quentin, the main character in The Magicians, already in his late teens, steps past awe and wonder and gets down to the hard, tedious, fascinating work of studying and practicing to become a proper magician.

The first part of the novel concerns Quentin's magical education, and while I was riveted, some sections of the education itself are sketched in briefly or elided, although a sequence in Antarctica fulfills the potential of a wizardly indoctrination. This school for magic is not Hogwarts -- it's college, with honestly described miseries and sexual longings and modern dialogue and wonder without treacly whimsy.

After Quentin's graduation, the book takes a more difficult path, but one that resonated deeply with my own background of obsessive reading of fantastic literature. The titular magicians journey to a magical land called Fillory, an obvious Narnia stand-in. There Quentin is surprised to not be swept away by heroic deeds and fantastical adventures . . . he carries much of his jaded, compromised, arrested adolescent, and disappointed attitude with him into this enchanted realm. This combination of cynicism and phantasm reminded me greatly of my own approach to fantastic literature in my middle years; returning to the sources of childhood wonder, the breathless hope for real mystery has been pushed to arm's length, a dulling of my capacity for belief, perhaps. The mixture of tarnished hope and actual, vividly-rendered adventure makes for a wonderfully honest approach for elucidating the charm of heroic fantasy at an age when magic dances stubbornly out of reach.

All adult fans of children's fantasy should read this book immediately; it travels far toward repairing the divide between the mundane and the extraordinary. This is what Narnia, Oz, and Hogwarts would be like if we somehow could go there as adults.

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