As a fan of speculative fiction who also has an MFA in writing, I can’t think of a single book that was thrust upon me more times than Lev Grossman’s The Magicians: A Novel (Magicians Trilogy).
I was told it was “literary fantasy,” a thing I put up there with the Yeti on my list of things that I’m unlikely to encounter. It’s not that I think fantasy is bad, far from it, I love the stuff. Fantasy and Science Fiction are the genres that I grew up reading and the ones that made me dream of being a writer. Unlike Science Fiction, however, Fantasy has always had a hard time fitting into that slot where it can be both Fantasy and literary. Too often the book is embraced by one party and snubbed entirely by the other. On first glance, The Magicians did seem to have broken that mold in an odd way. Neither Fantasy nor Literary Fiction fans wanted to whole-heartedly accept it. I’m not sure if that’s a win, but it was a change of pace, and enough to get me interested in reading this jackalope of a book. So, being the Fantasy fan I’ve always been–and having successfully avoided having literary snobbery thrust upon me by my masters program–I picked up The Magicians looking for a well-written escape into a world of magic and wonderment. I wasn’t disappointed.
The best one sentence description of this book is “Harry Potter meets Narnia written for and about college kids.” Yeah, it sounded weird to me too, but in retrospect it works. The story follows a Quentin, your usual socially-avoidant nerd, as he discovers that magic is real and enrolls in a magical university. The story also surrounds a land called Fillory and a series of novels surrounding a bunch of British kids who found their way there and had adventures. This doesn’t even pretend not to be a reconstruction of Narnia, complete with talking animals, but once you get past the near-plagiarism of the setup, that’s where the similarities between The Magicians and those books end.
The Magicians has a tone that tells you at once that it’s not for children. The main characters are adults with all the same problems and habits as adults. There’s sex, alcoholism, and quite a bit of post-college ennui regarding where one is supposed to go and what one is supposed to do with a degree from a magical university–at times it almost sounds as if he’s making fun of liberal arts colleges in the subtle connections one can draw. This all makes it feel very real, but it does another thing that fantasy novels don’t often do, it takes your attention away from the magical plot. Fillory is introduced in the very beginning, but the story keeps dragging you back into the mundane world of interpersonal relationships and college. It’s here, in the slower moments of the book, that I understand where people began to think of it as a “literary fantasy novel.”
Plot-wise, this book is not your standard fantasy novel. If you’re looking for a gripping read, a novel that will grab you in the first chapter and not let you go until the end, this isn’t it. The Magicians can be slow. It’s a book that, at times, almost begs you to put it down and do something else. At other times it grips you and, more than once, I found myself reading far too late into the night when I’d expected to be able to put the book down hours before. The pacing isn’t perfect, I did put it down several times, but if you pick it back up, it pays off. The climax is everything you want a fantasy climax to be: gripping, high-stakes, and very magical. In the end it left me wanting to grab the sequel, so it was successful again in that way.
It’s not a perfect book, the characters are sometimes so real that they’re annoying, like friends whose problems you get sick of hearing, and the pacing can drag at parts, but largely it’s because of those aspects that make people think of it as literary. It spends more time on the cast of characters and builds stronger relationships than most fantasies, and that takes time. I won’t give it some kind of numerical ranking, because I have no clue where I would put it, but I will end with this. It’s not a book for all fantasy fans, but it’s well written and immersive. If you’re someone like me who enjoys both speculative fiction and the more literary side of fiction, I would put this on your reading list right now. I didn’t find the Yeti, this isn’t something I would call “literary fantasy,” but it’s as close as I’ve ever gotten, and it gives me hope that maybe it’s out there somewhere.