I recently read The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, and I have to say, it was a pretty sweet book. I was raving about it all over the place the day I finished it, and given that I just wrote about Narnia the other day, I thought it might be apropos to talk up The Magicians, which may actually be the best book I read this year. Funny how it’s always some book in December that is the best book I read this year…I’m sure that has nothing to do with the fact that books I read in December are, of course, the most recent books I’ve read.
Please assume that this post contains some spoilers for the book; I won’t get into deep details of plot but if you’re one of those people who prefers to plunge into a book cold, knowing nothing about it, you should probably go find yourself a copy and read it and then come back and read this. I wouldn’t want to ruin your fun. (I am, after all, one of those people. I don’t even really like to read the blurbs. I’d rather approach the text with no foreknowledge at all about what’s going to happen or who I am going to encounter.)
The book opens with a somewhat disillusioned high school senior, swimming in class privilege, preparing to go to an interview for college. He’s bitter because he’s the third wheel in the friendship triad he’s in, because he’s bored, because he’s going through the motions of life but not really enjoying any of them.
And this is the moment in which a new world opens up to him, and he starts to realize that the magical world discussed in his favourite childhood books (clearly based on The Chronicles of Narnia although they aren’t called that) is actually real, as he is transported to a college for magic to take an entrance exam, which he passes. He starts school immediately, abandoning the non-magical world to learn the mechanics of magic and acquiring a new group of friends along the way.
This is an adult book, although I think that a lot of young adults would enjoy it too; I actually thought it was young adult at first, because I am so unaccustomed to seeing adult authors explore these kinds of storylines. It’s a book which is sharp and biting and cynical but also fully magical. It’s about the breakdown of childhood stories and beliefs, and the replacement with something even better and more rich.
There are subtle and sometimes snarky references to other books of this kind, in which ordinary people are suddenly introduced to a magical world, but they’re also friendly nods to the reader. They anchor us in a familiar world even as we are transported into the other side of magic. It’s dark and unpredictable and our main character isn’t even particularly likable. It’s woven with dangerous magic and layers of complexity.
Yeah, in part it’s about the total breakdown which happens as people emerge from childhood to adulthood and the world is upended. About how you start to realize that everything you thought was true actually wasn’t and that the foundations of your thoughts, ideas, and beliefs are shaking and might not hold up, depending on how things go.
It’s also about the rebirth that happens as you grow into your own person and start pushing the boundaries of the world around you and you realize that you saw only shadows of hidden worlds before, and now you can explore them, if you like. It’s about the choices we make and how we live with those choices; the reminder that none of us is perfect and that some of us actually make epic mistakes sometimes. Mistakes which cost lives, even.
I think there’s a lot of great use of language and wordplay in this book, and I loved the layers of references and Easter Eggs for attentive readers. It’s like Narnia for grownups, I told someone after finishing it, but it’s also about so much more than that. It questions the doctrine set forward in Narnia without beating readers over the head with it. It presents an alternate view of the story that brings in more nuance.
I really can’t recommend The Magicians highly enough. I strongly suspect that I will be buying a copy so that I can read it over and over, because there’s so much going on in this book that each reading will reveal fresh layers and dimensions I have not considered before. It’s a deliciously creepy and unsettling and compelling book; I haven’t actually stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to finish a book in a long time, and The Magicians forced me to do just that. I had to know where the characters went, and what happened next.
I’m always excited to read adult books like this, where the author acknowledges and plays with the idea of magic and doesn’t do it in a self conscious or pretentious way. I love the fact that Grossman built on prior worlds to create an entirely new sort of world for us to enjoy; reading The Magicians felt like getting to the end of the garden, opening a gate, and realizing that I had actually only been in a tiny corner of a much larger garden than I ever could have imagined.