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'The Magicians,' Lev Grossman

A tale of magicians that's no fairy-tale fantasy.

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This is not your kid sister’s magic. The Magicians tells the story of Quentin Coldwater, a beta-male Brooklyn teen anxious about his upcoming entrance interview for Princeton. Quentin is the quintessential overachiever — he’s used to hours of studying, poring over pages and pages of notes in order to excel.

This grinding instinct comes in handy when he’s magically whisked away to Brakebills, a sort of college for the magically inclined. For magic in The Magicians is not “learn some fake Latin and jiggle your wand a bit,” but almost a language to memorize, wherein the verb tense depends upon any number of circumstances such as location, the weather, and possibly even the length of your nose hairs.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read. Humor is sprinkled liberally throughout, from realistic — unsurprisingly, most college-aged students spend an inordinate amount of drinking or trying to shake off the effects of it — to the deliciously absurd — “The faun burst into lame. It was like it was made of magnesium soaked in gasoline … No part of it was not on ire.”

The genius of the novel, however, comes not from the story itself but when viewed as a deconstruction of the fantasy novel.

Take Fillory, the magical land described in the typical fantasy books which Quentin grew up reading. It’s a stand-in for Narnia, thus giving Quentin the same background as many who read his book. Most main characters in fantasy novels have never read one themselves. Quentin thinks along the same lines as the reader — he knows how magical stories are supposed to go.

Most people who read The Chronicles of Narnia have probably wondered or daydreamed about receiving the call from Aslan. How would they fare? Would their heroism overcome their cowardice, or would they turn tail and run?

As the non-magical quality of the magic may have tipped you off, this is not a fairy-tale fantasy. It’s not just “befriend the locals, have a bit of adversity and then complete the quest to achieve eternal glory.” Real life rarely works out so simply, and The Magicians is no different.

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