March 6, 2011
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The Magicians

by Lev Grossman

Linda and I usually agree about fiction, but this turned out to be an exception. Linda thought the characters were unlovable and rudderless. I think that’s the point.

Quentin Coldwater is a Brooklyn boy with good grades and plenty of troubles, all small. He goes to his Princeton interview and receives instead an offer of admission to Brakebills, the secretive upstate New York college of magic. Naturally, he accepts at once, leaving behind Brooklyn, his parents, and his childish, fannish enthusiasms. Brakebills is Hogwarts refracted through realism, a contemporary college filled with real kids who fight with each other, sleep together, and gain surprisingly sophisticated tastes in liquor.

At Brakebills, we soon find ourselves thrown together with a rambunctious red-haired pal and a preternaturally smart, shy young woman. In this story, however, it doesn't take us seven thousand pages for the the redhead to punch Quentin in the face or for the girl to take him to bed.

The backdrop of The Magicians is Fillory, which is to say Narnia. Everyone at Brakebills has read it and seen through its allegory. They’ve also read Lord of The Ring and nearly everything else in sight, though not His Dark Materials, which gets an occasional nod but which is working Grossman’s side of the street. If Philip Pullman’s trilogy is an emphatic, passionate refutation of Narnia, The Magicians shrugs its shoulders, accepts why we might once have rather liked it, and claims to have left all that behind. Still, it keeps coming up.

Quentin’s girlfriend, Alice, is drawn superbly and concisely, a wonderful example of that old writerly magic pioneered by another Alice: to make us love a character, give her no inner life and let everyone else love her.

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