Grossman, Lev. The Magicians.

NY: Viking, 2009.

Quentin Coldwater of Brooklyn is seventeen and a nerd’s nerd, and he’s out with his two closest friends, James and Julia (he’s in love with her but it’s hopeless). It’s a cold, wet September afternoon and the two guys are going to an alumnus interview for Princeton and Quentin knows he’s a shoo-in. (“My GPA is a number higher than most people even realize it is possible for a GPA to be.”) But the old man they’re supposed to meet with is dead, having left them each a manila envelope.

And suddenly, while pushing his way though an overgrown community garden in an alley in search of a shortcut out of there, Quentin is out in the country somewhere (turns out it’s just upstate New York), and it’s summer, and he’s been invited to take an examination for Brakebills College. Well, he’s very, very good at competitive exams. He’s also very good at sleight-of-hand-type magic, and that counts at Brakebills.

This isn’t at all like Hogwarts, though, of course, that’s the first point of comparison every reader turns to. Learning the theory and practice of magic isn’t just a matter of reciting an incantation and waving your hands. (There are wands, either.) “As much as it was like anything, magic was like a language,” a very, very difficult language, with a huge compilation of grammatical rules and an even more huge heap of idiomatic exceptions and special cases. And it requires an unbelievable amount of rote memorization and practice. Not to mention, of course, a very specific natural talent for magic. The author’s approach to the whole subject is fascinating and illuminating.

Quentin’s five years at Brakebills is a period of learning, growing up, discovering people, falling in love, and struggling with guilt. And it’s leavened by tragedies and enlivened by his growing relationship with Alice, the smartest person in their class, and who is even quirkier than he is. And then, at almost exactly the midpoint of the book, they all graduate. And then what? Ever since he read the five-book “Fillory and Further” series as a kid, learning to do magic was the only thing Quentin ever really wanted — and now he’s done that. So what does a trained magician do out in the real world for the rest of his life? Many will become academics themselves and go into research, some will work behind the scenes on behalf of world peace and the environment, some will goof off until they become bored, or play dangerous war games. Because “the worldwide magical ecology was suffering from a serious imbalance — too many magicians, not enough monsters.” I can’t really say much about the next step in the plot without ruining it for you. It sure surprised the hell out of me, though. And the author handles it all very adroitly indeed. Even the real tragedies.

Grossman is very talented in his use of the language, especially in his descriptions. During a semester in Antarctica (where there are no distractions from their studies), they learn to transform themselves into other animals, in one case an Artic fox. “Quentin shot out across the snowpack on his four twinkling paws. His little fox body was so fast and light, and his eyes were so close to the ground, that it was like flying a high-performance jet at low altitude.” When one of the characters is handed a small glass of clear alcohol, “it tasted like a vital nutrient that his body had been chronically deprived of his entire life.” Or, “Wild emotions competed for possession of his brain, like rival armies taking and retaking the same hill.” That kind of original and effervescent writing is very rare and it’s a delight to read.

All in all, you might pick this volume up expecting some sort of children’s fantasy, or at least the sort of thing Tolkien and Rowling wrote — sort of intended for younger readers but capable of being appreciated by adults as well. But it’s not that. Not at all. Aside from the occasional semi-adult themes and scenes (if that sort of thing actually bothers you), this book isn’t for kids. And the principal characters aren’t particularly heroic. It’s not mere (or “mere”) escapist fiction, either, though Quentin spends much of his life trying to escape responsibility and shifting blame for his own screw-ups. Much of what the author has to say is very grown-up indeed. And that’s because a part of the adult mind never stops wishing there was real magic in the world — but Grossman tells you, in various ways, that it’s probably a good thing there isn’t.

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