I’ve been drawn to science fiction and fantasy since I learned to read. As I imagine is the case with most speculative fiction fans, at the core of my continuing fascination is the insatiable desire to read stories that are, in some way, unlike what I have read before. Sometimes I find very familiar stories told in new ways, such as Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw. Sometimes I find stories that are entirely unfamiliar to me, such as in Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless. Sometimes I’m amazed by the creative mind of the author, as in Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, or by the extrapolation of current trends to bizarre future societies, as in Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief. Speculative fiction is such a wide field and the stories to be told are limited only by the imagination and skill of their creators.
Of course, the only way to continue to enjoy these new kinds of stories is to constantly stretch one’s horizons as a reader. WWEnd’s convenient awards rankings, theme book lists, and now yearly challenges have helped me to continue to expand my experience of genre fiction. As a continuation of this, I am going to make a special effort to read and review the debut novels of relatively new authors in the field. The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer will guide my selections, but I will necessarily branch out to other new authors that catch my interest. Through this series, I hope to discover many new and upcoming authors, and to possibly bring them to the attention of others.
I’m beginning with Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, for which he won the 2011 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer*. I know this book is far from unknown, but I think it is a good place to begin my study of new authors in science fiction and fantasy.
*The 2012 winner was E. Lily Yu, for a short story located here, free of charge. I would feel silly writing a review of it, when anyone could read the actual story just as quickly!
I will try to steer clear of most spoilers, but I will describe the plot in general terms. Read at your own risk!
As is common these days, Grossman has a website and blog where one can find information about his publications, authorial activities, and more. In actuality, The Magicians is not Grossman’s first novel, since it is predated by the thriller, Codex (2004),and a novel of aimless post-graduate trekkie life, titled Warp (1997). The Magicians is his debut in the fantasy genre, though I wonder if some parts of the depiction of ‘aimless post-wizard-school life’ are informed by his work writing Warp. In terms of age suitability, The Magicians contains a lot of substance abuse, sexual content, and some violence.
The Magicians has been popularly described as “Harry Potter for adults”, a phrase that I’m afraid will soon become too common to be a useful descriptor. At least in one way, it is literally true here—the novel tells the story of a group of 18-year-olds who are unexpectedly invited to attend a hidden college of magic, called Brakebills. The main character is Quentin Coldwater, a perpetually dissatisfied teenager and academic overachiever who is obsessed with a series of British books about a fantasy world called Fillory. The first part of the story follows his years at Brakebills, where he and the other academically driven students live in an abnormally strict prep-school-style community. Quentin eventually develops a close-knit group of friends who study together, reluctantly play strange competitive magical sports, fall in love and/or lust, and drink lots of wine. After graduation, Quentin and his friends flounder until they find a new purpose—going to Fillory, a world that may be not so fictional after all.
The characters in The Magicians are believable, but a little difficult to like. Quentin and his friends mostly view the world with bored cynicism and contempt, despite the magical wonders around them. Quentin is particularly irritating, with his insistence on being miserable in all situations. He was one of those people who are convinced that ‘real’ happiness occurs only when the universe forces it on you. Therefore, he just wanders through life aimlessly, whining constantly that the world isn’t making him happy. I felt most sympathetic towards Quentin during his time at Brakebills, where he found unexpected joy in the camaraderie of his small group of friends. I could appreciate Quentin’s quiet desperation to preserve that transient sense of belonging.
In the same way, I was most affected by the portrayal of the college and post-graduate lives of Quentin and his friends. Despite the magic, some of the highlights of their college experience are not all that dissimilar (in theme) to real life. I can appreciate the friendships that arise through studying and relaxing together day after day, and the cold dread when you realize that the group will likely disperse after only a few years. Similarly, I recognize the lack of purpose that can descend after spending seventeen years in a highly regulated school environment, only to find that you aren’t sure what to do with all that accumulated knowledge. It can be hard to switch from measuring yourself by academic achievement to setting and achieving your own personal goals. Quentin and his friends don’t deal with any of these situations particularly well, but I suppose that is also quite realistic.
Concerning the more fantastical side of the story, it’s very clear that The Magicians has strong influences from existing works in the genre. Grossman even highlights this fact with explicit references to Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, and probably others that I didn’t catch. The one influence that affects the story most heavily, though, is C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. The Fillory and Further novels, by fictional author Christopher Plover, are clearly modeled after Lewis’s work. Though the connection between the two is obvious, there are differences between Fillory and Narnia—Fillory does not appear to be a Christian allegory, and it plays a different kind of role in Quentin’s story. However, I couldn’t quite figure out if Fillory was intended as a darker, more cynical homage to Narnia or a mockery. Specifically, there were certain personal insults leveled at Plover that did not sit well with me, considering that he is a reference to an actual deceased person. Aside from this, most of the references were fun to pick out, and I liked how it emphasized that the characters of The Magicians were familiar with these enduringly popular classics of fantasy.
While the heavy influence of other fantasy works is undeniable, Grossman puts his own twist on some things. I most enjoyed how magic was treated as a legitimately difficult discipline. As in other disciplines, such as music or physics, one can only become more skilled through constant, intense study. Even after graduation, the magicians can’t just re-order reality on a whim. Some of them are capable of remarkable feats of magic, but only when given time for study and preparation. I really loved seeing the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the practice of magic, as Quentin and his friends studied at Brakebills.
In the end, there were many things that I felt The Magicians did well, though there were some things that bothered me. I enjoyed the portrayal of college and post-graduate haze, though I was less interested in the stories of Fillory. The characters were deeply flawed, possibly to the extent of being unlikeable for some readers. There were plenty of allusions to previous works in fantasy, but the grimly realistic tone and interesting take on the study of magic set this novel apart. The Magicians was an interesting introduction to Grossman’s work, and I will probably try more of his novels in the future.