Like a lot of kids, I used to wish the fantasy worlds I read about really existed. It was a not-so-secret hope that I’d have a magic adventure like the siblings in the Chronicles of Narnia or Edward Eager books, even though I knew from a very young age it was never actually going to happen (I don’t have brothers or sisters.) But there was always that little voice in my head that reminded me no one ever expected to be carried off to another world, and, in fact, that was sort of the point.
So I could easily relate to Quentin Coldwater, the main character in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. At least at first.
Quentin’s Narnia-equivalent is a land called Fillory, a stand-in for all WWI-era British children’s fantasy, but C.S. Lewis’s work in particular. From the Chatwin siblings and the four thrones at Castle Whitespire (for two kings and two queens) to the ram gods Ember and Umber (Fillory’s Aslans), the magic creatures and even the mysterious Watcherwoman, it’s not hard to understand Quentin’s life-long love of the books. Which of us didn’t take a chance on an old wardrobe, just in case it might lead into a snow-covered forest?
Unfortunately, The Magicians isn’t really about discovering Fillory is real, like the book seems to promise, and that just doesn’t work for me. When supposed-genius Quentin has an unusual encounter at age seventeen and finds himself taking an exam to enter a school for magic, it isn’t in Fillory, or even another world. And though Brakebills College has its own Hogwartsian charms, Grossman spends entirely too much of the book explaining the particulars of a magician’s education and social life. Which might be fine if those details actually paid off in the end, but they don’t.
It feels as though the story gets away from Grossman during the five years at Brakebills. He places emphasis on minor characters or events that don’t get developed for hundreds of pages, if at all, and spends too many pages detailing the drinking of Quentin’s circle of friends and the rules of a game called welters, or, Brakebills’ answer to Quidditch. An incident with a figure referred to as the Beast in Quentin’s Third year seems appropriately ominous – and then is ignored in favor of a long period of time spent in what is essentially a monastery in Antarctica and Quentin’s soul-searching trek, naked, across the pole.
The central ‘mystery’ stringing the book together is too weak, and spread too far apart. By the time Quentin finds the real Fillory, it doesn’t seem to matter any more, and it doesn’t help that he’s turned into a self-pitying, self-destructive asshole. After all the time at Brakebills, and all the time spent with Quentin’s friends the ‘Physical kids’ (so named after their area of magical disciplines), everything to do with Fillory – from how they get there, to who finds it, to how it looks and the big bad – is rushed, underdeveloped, and frankly disappointing.
If, at the very least, Quentin took everything he learned from Brakebills, including whatever personal conclusions he came to during his Antarctic vision-quest, and applied it to the final conflict, that might tie the rambling nature of the book back to its original premise. Instead, the only really likable character steps up, saves the day, and makes the ultimate sacrifice. Quentin doesn’t take inspiration from this moment, choosing instead to wallow and self-flagellate – after he finally wakes up from his coma, and discovers his remaining friends have returned to the real world.
The book had me at the start – there were clever references, interesting explorations, and great details – but the on-again, off-again omen of Fillory, the implication that everything we learn about those books will somehow be important, had me waiting for conclusions and revelations that never really came – and the final two twists, the reveal of the names behind the two bogeymen, only earned a ‘Oh, yeah…’ because the clues were so few and far apart, lost in an ocean of other details.
I was actually angry by the end of it. To have traveled all that way with Quentin for so little pay-off. For characters I still barely knew and barely liked after 400 pages to get rewarded while the more interesting ones died or dropped off. Maybe I had the wrong expectations because I didn’t get what I, as a reader of fantasy and life-long dreamer, would have wanted to see if it were my opportunity.
Ultimately, I just don’t think The Magicians lives up to its promise. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be in the wardrobe.