Clap your Hands if you Believe in Magic, Mr. Grossman

the magiciansGrossman, Lev. The Magicians: A Novel. New York: Plume, 2010.

The Magicians should have been everything I want in a book: a classic fantasy plot, a well-constructed world, a darkly cynical sense of humor, and several layers of slick literary allusions.  But it left me feeling cheated, like a kid at a magic show who catches a glimpse of the mirror and the false bottom in the box.The best part of the book is its ambition.  Grossman built a fantasy book structured around two very tired narratives—young man goes to school for wizards, and young man finds portal into a magical land that needs his help—and wrestled something new and adult out of it.  He let the actual real world have weight in the novel, complete with cursing, sex, drugs, and impudent Harry Potter references.  He suppressed both villainy and heroism, and gave us funny, awkward young adults instead.  He aimed for gritty, real, clever, and new.

And for the most part, that’s what The Magicians is.  Quentin Coldwater, a gloomy New York teenager who does well with standardized tests, walks into an overgrown lot and pops out on the campus of a college for magic.  But the school has none of the sweet whimsy of Hogwarts.  It’s a mopey, arrogant place, which Quentin survives by being mopey and arrogant.  He spends his time drinking fine wine with his new friends and wishing he could live in Fillory (which is apparently Grossman’s nickname for Narnia).  After they graduate, and spend several months slouching boozily in a New York apartment, there are suddenly clues that Fillory might be a real, tangible destination.  Quentin and Co. depart for immediate adventure-having, but spend most of their time getting resentful about sexual relationships and becoming tangled in their own meta-narrative.

It feels, in the end, like a fantasy book written by someone who’s been let down by fantasy, who pines for Narnia and never got over the bitter disappointment that all his childhood wardrobes were ordinary.  Maybe that’s why Quentin is such an insufferable bag of angst, self-pity, and premature cynicism.  Sure, he’s a teenager, and teenagers are statistically likely to be insufferable bags of angst, but it only seems to get worse as he grows up.  It’s the most dissatisfying coming-of-age story ever, where coming-of-age is defined as steadily abandoning your dreams and sinking into a disappointed morass of self-loathing.

That’s perhaps the unresolved tension in this book’s little papery heart: does Grossman believe in the fantastic and magical, or does he sneer at it?  Is the book a complicated ode to modern fantasy, or a satirical farce?  If Tinker Bell’s light was going out, would Grossman clap his hands, or would he laugh at the stupidity of hand clapping as an emergency rescue strategy?  I don’t know, but I know The Magicians left me cold, wistful, and weirdly irritated.  And absolutely willing to read the sequel, if only because I so much want to see Quentin and Grossman both man up and decide that they believe in fairies after all.

Notes of interest:

  • Zhouweiwen’s review of the sequelThe Magician King at Nerds of Color is worth reading, because it mentions two of the more serious concerns I had with the books–a persistent whiff of elitism, and the absence of absolutely all characters of color.  at Nerds of Color


  1. My sentiments exactly but, like you, I couldn’t help but read the sequel. If the first book is about an arrogant Harry Potter, then the second book is “If Holden Caulfield went to Narnia and calls Aslan a phony.” It was a creative and darkly humorous take on the magic school trope, but those kids were assholes and I was sorry to spend so much time with them.

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