The search for a successor to the Harry Potter series became somewhat of a publishing Holy Grail as the final volume neared publication. A number of candidates were proposed, but none seemed to strike the magic chord the world of Hogwarts had rung with so many, across the divides of both age and culture. Most of these would-be successors to the Potter throne were books intended (as Rowling had written her books) for young readers, but which happened to employ themes that resonated with adults as well (a matter which seems to have been somewhat accidental on Rowling’s part). The idea seems to be that the “sense of wonder” employed in fantasy literature for children would activate this child-like state in adults and lead them to enjoy the books.
This notion falls right into what Yeats referred to as “suspension of disbelief.” For an adult reader to enjoy something like a Harry Potter book, the adult must be inspired to forget the “real world” with all its moral ambiguity and complexity, and willingly submerge into a world where magic and miracles are so common as to be mundane.
Adults initially stumbled into reading Harry Potter, either from reading to their children or investigating what their children were reading. Those adults found books that were not “half-bad,” were entertaining, and of course reminded us of the joys of youth: best friends, wild adventures, skirting the rules, first love, and such. The books might not have been great, but they were fun and touched something deep within each adult reader, something that had probably been sleeping since high school. They were fantasy, but an agreeable fantasy, one which had few dark overtones and was objectionable only to the most fanatic of strict moralists.
By the time the series was completed, those who had encountered the book at, say, the age of twelve had become adults themselves. They had grown up with the characters of the books, and just as those characters eventually find themselves thrust into an adult world where magic and miracle are not common, these adult readers found themselves rudely thrust into a world harsher than they might prefer. These readers would return to the magical world of Hogwarts, but the purity of their wonder was tarnished now; they could never go home again.
This demographic development created another geas for publishers: the quest for the “adult Harry Potter.” That is, a book full of magic and miracle, which takes into account the inescapable reality in which even the graduates of Hogwarts eventually find themselves. It is into this world that The Magicians: A Novel was born.
The audience for Grossman’s novel, if we are to judge from the characters, would be college-age adults; it is, in fact, the very kind of novel that Hermione might read for her own amusement. The first half of the novel takes place at Brakebills, a college of magic located somewhere in upstate New York, though hidden from sight by powerful spells. Quentin, a dedicated honors student who might otherwise have attended Harvard, leaves his Brooklyn home and friendships to attend this college. Along with two other freshmen, Quentin is mysteriously placed on an accelerated curriculum. In less than two terms he finds himself elevated to junior status and placed within a group of young magicians who specialize in Physical Magic.
This much of the plot will seem familiar to those with even a superficial knowledge of Hogwarts and its environs. Unlike Rowling’s books, the faculty in Grossman’s novel is secondary and little more than passing figures; we have no real sense of their personalities, and are treated with little more than brief descriptions of their physical appearance and behavior. Grossman’s primary concern, as the title would indicate, is with the young magicians themselves as they endure the usual rites of passage a college education entails. Their drunken bacchanals and love triangles are however edged with magic, and thus imbued with a stronger power than the usual adolescent angst. This provides more than a little page-turning curiosity: after all, what would a powerful magician do in a drunken, jealous rage?
Upon graduation the characters find themselves in a decidedly unmagical world, where their place as master sorcerers is uncertain – though entirely up to them to decide and define, with so much independence from the school and other wizards as to almost suggest neglect on the part of the elders. Like many post-grads, Quentin and his friends find a house and move in together, extending their college years with an endless series of parties and affairs. If you’re a magician, you don’t even have to bother working at your father’s firm. There’s no pressure to find or create a career; there is however the probability of boredom; and for a group of over-achievers with magical powers, a life without challenges can become its own kind of hell.
The endless summer soon subsides to ennui, but just at the moment they’re all bored to tears and beginning to loathe one another, an old friend from college arrives with an incredible tale and a strange artifact. Soon they are all off on an adventure in a strange fantasy realm, bringing along jealousies and rivalries certain to unravel their bonds and impede their glorious quest.
Grossman has created his own series of fantasy novels, along with a make-believe author, which inspired the magicians in their childhood. These books concern a Narnia-like world known as Fillory, and describe the adventures of the precocious Chatwin children, who eventually become benign rulers of Fillory. It is to this realm our protagonists travel. At this point the story shifts from a magic-themed Carnal Knowledge to the more familiar and traditional quest-epic. Their journey to save a fallen kingdom and restore honor to the land exactly mirrors their own personal journeys.
The first two-thirds of the novel, focused on the development of young magicians and their late lives in a mundane world, is enormously satisfying and involving. Their living situation not unlike the standard situation of reality TV (several people, picked to live in a house…), in this case the scenario is made more interesting and dramatic by the presence of supernatural powers. Of course, they all have these powers, so the temptation to put a hex on a romantic rival is tempered by the fact that the hex would not only likely fail, but the rival (who might have more mojo than you) can fight back equally well. The presence of the power is some foremost in the mind of these magicians that an unexpected fist fight is thrilling and unique. So expectant of a magical assault, it actually takes one combatant a few seconds before he realizes he’s being punched.
When the characters transport themselves to Fillory, the story maintains the interpersonal rivalries that drive the drama of the earlier story. These conflicts stand out as vulgar and unnecessary as they stand together in combat against creatures that seem to be taken right out of a role-playing game. But Grossman’s Fillory is not well-imagined (or perhaps not well-described) enough to take root in my mind. It obviously exists in an elaborate fashion within the minds of these characters; but because the world is invented, and thus entirely unfamiliar to the reader, it is difficult to imagine completely. Its resemblance to Narnia made things only more difficult for me, though thankfully Grossman’s world is not so heavy with theological overtones.
Of all the “Harry Potter for grown-ups” candidates I’ve read, The Magicians stands at the top of the heap, along with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, as a novel which not only features magic, but also employs themes in a manner which might appeal to adult readers.