Quentin Coldwater is in many ways a typical teen: bright, slightly nerdy, cynical, yet with a secret belief that there's a place where things are perfect, if only he could find it. For Quentin, this perfect place is Fillory, the setting for a series of kids books with Christian overtones (like Narnia). Although ashamed of it, he can't let go of the comfort he's found in the books since he was a child. He wishes for a place such as Fillory where things matter, and everything works out in the end. Thus he is overjoyed when he is recruited to a secret college. He's told that magic is real and he has a talent for it.
Superficial similarities aside, The Magicians isn't interested in re-telling Harry Potter. The book quickly informs that magic is not fun or easy. Certainly, there's wonder to be had as the students grow in skill, but there's also quite a grind to get there. Further, despite the power involved in marshaling terrific forces to do your bidding, magic is no guarantee of happiness. It's not even a guarantee of a job after graduation:
"No one would come right out and say it, but the worldwide magical ecology was suffering from a serious imbalance: too many magicians, not enough monsters."
Quentin and his friends, looking for meaning, spiral into drugs, and meaningless sex. At his lowest point, someone tells Quentin Fillory is real, and he can take them there. The friends make their way there looking for adventure and reward, but instead they find dissension, deceit, and apathy:
"Our people have been slaughtering and betraying one another for centuries, Quentin,' she said. "The rule of the Chatwins is the last peaceful time anyone can remember. You don't know anyone here; you have no history, no scores to settle. You belong to no faction." She stared fixedly at the road ahead of them, biting off her words. The bitterness in her tone was bottomless." It makes perfect political sense. We have reached the point where ignorance and neglect are the best we can hope for in a ruler."
Quentin undertakes a final quest and the only reward he seeks is to go home, where he gives up on power and on dreams. But writer Lev Grossman knows that dreams have a funny way of taking on a life of their own, and as long as we have a little wonder buried within us, the magic can never really die.
There is so much to love about this book. Grossman has a deceptively easy style that is capable of humor and darkness and surprising beauty. The time at the magic school is filled with wonder. You can understand Quentin's excitement even as you see the cracks in this perfect world. By deliberately calling up echoes of C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, and even Tolkien, Grossman is able to create a sense of familiarity which he then twists to his own ends.
He clearly loves his characters, but Grossman doesn't make it easy for them. Time after time they must look beyond the easy answers and realize that happiness and meaning, like magic, have to be earned. He forces his characters to grow up, and it's to his credit that some do so without losing the wonder of it all.
For me, this is the heart of the book: as you grow up, you find things are not they way you thought they were. Being a grown-up has its advantages, but it doesn't magically solve all of your problems. If you want your life to have meaning, then you have to work at it and make it happen.
The Magicians is an amazing book: funny, tragic, and magical, and those of you who have managed to hang on to your own childhood magic will find ample reward within.