I don’t normally use this blog as a way to discuss non-manga fiction, but a few weeks ago my residency position had me across the country in the great city of N’Awlins for the American Society of Heath-System Pharmacists’ annual Midyear conference to present some of my research as well as network with other clinical pharmacists from around the US, and in those brief moments where I wasn’t attending CE presentations, presenting research, interviewing residency candidates, meeting new people, catching up with fellow ONU alumni, or drinking hurricanes, I was feverishly consuming the most recent works of Lev Grossman.
The trigger for my original purchase of the first book came from a review of The Magician King from The Onion’s AV Club, which likened these novels to a Harry Potter of the real world – a fantasy novel that was more about people and how wretched they can be than the fantastic feats they could perform. I took the bait, and was enthralled by Grossman’s keen fiction.
The premise of the first novel is simple – a brilliant young man named Quentin, obsessed with novels about a magical land called Fillory (a Narnia of sorts) finds out, in a strange afternoon, that he has the ability to do magic, and that he, instead of being accepted to the halls of Stanford or some other prestigious Ivy-league school, will instead attend the similarly-prestigious and completely mysterious Brakebills School of Magic. He learns the craft of magic slowly throughout the first book, and falls in love with a young woman who will become the crux of the two novels – a woman named Alice. As he graduates and moves on to the real world, he finds that Fillory is a real place – a magical world where he and his other friends can live out the rest of their lives.
But not all is golden in Fillory, and neither is the real world. Neither, for that matter, are any of the characters in these two novels. Each of them has their warts, their tics, and their habits, and Grossman swings, spins, and twists them around stage until their basest desires and hideous natures are revealed, and then pushes them into the face of gods and delights when they spit in defiance. In the near-final portion of the book, Quentin loses things that are precious to him, but the world of Fillory is saved. It is an empty victory.
In the second novel, Quentin and a high-school friend named Julia, traverse the world of Fillory, and Earth and other lands in order to save the thing they both love most – magic. We learn about Julia, who appears briefly in the first novel as a broken and disturbed reject of the Brakebills School of Magic, and the darkness that permeates her character and her life. Oddly, once the dust of the action has settled, Quentin again has lost something precious.
Loss is the central theme of The Magicians and The Magician King. We watch the characters react to loss, whether it is a loss of their faculties, their relationships, their friends, and sometimes, their humanity in the name of heroism. Grossman seems to look into our sense of optimism and longing for happy endings, and chidingly tells us, “But remember children, this is how things actually happen.” It is this sense of loss and how real and biting it can be that has stuck in my craw even now as I look back on the books.
Grossman has a sense of the dramatic, but he also understands the balancing act each person must reconcile as they go about their lives, and he understands what drives people to make terrible, life-altering decisions. Amongst the bad choices and hedonistic tastes of his characters, Grossman sprinkles pop culture references, and brings into focus the books (The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter) which he so lovingly deconstructs.
The Magicians and The Magician King are books that every fantasy reader should read, but not because they are escapist, like the rest of the genre – they should read these novels because they are so rooted in the human. Grossman gives magic its due, but reminds us, sometimes gently, and sometimes with the force of a swinging hammer, that life is neither an escape, nor a fantasy. Our choices often have unintended consequences, and these consequences can unhinge us and make us who we are. Or who we are meant to be.