The comparisons to Harry Potter are inevitable, but when Quentin Coldwater is recruited by Brakebills, a magical university hidden in upstate New York, he’s no wide-eyed eleven year old. Smart, anti-social, competitive, and melancholy, he’s designed his life to please Princeton’s admissions office. He took up performing magic tricks so that he could claim an extracurricular activity without actually having to interact with other people. Then he has one of those through-the-looking-glass, or rather, through-the-back-of-the-wardrobe moments, and finds himself on the grounds of Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, taking an incomprehensibly weird entrance exam. When it turns out there’s real magical talent contributing to his sleight-of-hand, Quentin takes about two minutes to realign his career goals. Magicianship beats his depressing real life any day of the week.
Although I may after all prefer the antics of schoolchildren to those of moody college kids and postgrads—sex, drugs, and nihilism, man, St. Elmo’s Fire with sorcery—I enjoyed Grossman’s easy, clever prose and the details of his invented magic. I particularly loved passages describing the cataloging of Brakesbills’s books, which bring an entirely new meaning to the phrase “mobile library:”
“… in which the books fluttered from shelf to shelf like birds, reorganizing themselves spontaneously under their own power in response to searches… enormous atlases soaring around the place like condors….The librarian had imagined he could summon a given book to perch on his hand just by shouting out its call number, but in actuality they were just too willful, and some were actively predatory.”
Sometimes charming, sometimes quite dark, it isn’t always clear whether this is a love letter to children’s fantasy or its shocking exposé. From Quidditch to Ents, devoted fantasy readers will enjoy the allusions to the literature of their childhood, and in particular to Narnia (“Fillory” is its thinly-disguised counterpart in the novel), where life is somehow truer and more meaningful and schoolboys become kings. But Quentin’s attempts to find love and fathom meaning in his life just do not get any simpler from one magical world to the next. A fantasy novel about whether you should make fantasy worlds your refuge, it has more in common with Neil Gaiman’s “The Problem of Susan” than with Hogwarts.
Check the WRL catalog for The Magicians.