I am a busy woman, and as such, I have very little free time to devote to activities that are purely leisurely. Therefore, when I sit down to consume some piece of media for enjoyment’s sake, I want to enjoy it. More to the point, I don’t want my media to be grimdark or jaded or humorlessly cynical. I want to have fun with it, because I am consuming it for fun’s sake.
The Magicians is the story of a young man named Quentin Coldwater, who, on the day of his interview for Princeton, ends up whisked off to audition for a spot at Brakebills College instead. Brakebills, it should be noted, is an institution of higher magical learning rather than a dowdy old mundane college like you or I may have attended. Needless to say, as the protagonist of our book, he gets in, and excels in the theoretical and practical studies of magic. He plays magical sports, he turns into a bird, he studies abroad in Antarctica, he skips grades, and he nearly travels to the moon.
After being granted this fantastic series of experiences, Quentin graduates and heads out into the real world, where he and his friends live a carefree life of debauchery until an old schoolmate shows up with a powerful magical item that turns out to be the key to entering Fillory, a Narnia-esque land they all thought was purely fictional. Although they’re as excited and nervous as you and I would be given one of Polly and Digory’s magic rings, the crew heads into Fillory and are granted a quest. They head off to save the country from the cruel, warped creature currently controlling it and, after much hardship, succeed. Quentin recovers slowly from the final showdown, and upon return to our world opts to take a break from magic. The story closes on his friends returning to find him and inviting him back to Fillory to take their places as kings and queens on Fillory’s four thrones.
This sounds like the dream life of any human being who’s ever read a Harry Potter or Narnia book. Who wouldn’t want these things, and who wouldn’t constantly be amazed at their good luck in having stumbled onto them? The answer, to the latter question at least, is Quentin. He is an exhaustingly jaded protagonist. For a man who is fascinated by magic and skilled at it, who’s obsessed with Fillory, and who is thus consistently handed his every dream on a platter, he spends essentially the entire book complaining about his ongoing malaise. He jumps from diversion to diversion, hurtling through destructive relationships just as a break in the ennui. He is so convinced that happiness, too, is something that someone else will eventually hand him rather than something he has to work for or find for himself that every new and exciting development in his story is just something else to sigh deeply about. It’s like trudging through the Swamps of Sadness trying to get through four hundred pages of a privileged white guy getting drunk and complaining about having magical powers.
The Magicians is marketed as a book that will appeal to grown-up fans of Harry Potter and Narnia, and these are boot-to-the-head obvious comparisons, but they lack the emotional comps. Yes, it’s about a boy who is plucked from obscurity to go to a magical school, but it’s just obscurity. Quentin is a well-off, privileged student from a content, if boring, nuclear family who could have attended an Ivy League school had he not been chosen for Brakebills. And yes, they use a magical object to travel first to an in-between world and then, via magic pools, to a fantasy land overseen by godlike animals that can only be ruled by humans from Earth. But it’s a grim land stuck in the shadow of its previous human rulers where centaurs keep herds of horses to fuck and talking bears spend their time getting wasted on peach schnapps.
The weird thing about this grimdarkness is that it starts out as clearly just Quentin’s problem. His classmates, even his close friends, don’t seem to suffer from the same dramatic ennui as Quentin. They’re the best and brightest, and they know it. Up until they go to Fillory, it seems like it’s just that life is neutral—sometimes good things happen, sometimes bad things happen—and Quentin’s just a huge pessimist. But Fillory seems to justify his bitterness. It’s Narnia with a hangover, and being there is so grim that Quentin’s miserable attitude fits right in. Taking such an obvious pastiche of Narnia and making its reality so much darker and more miserable than the way it’s portrayed in the Narnia books isn’t clever or grownup storytelling—it’s so unhappy that it’s boring.
The book has a cool premise, and a cool conception of magic—something tied to a variety of both theoretical and physical conditions known as Circumstances that must be released through complicated gestures and spellwork—and it’s a tragedy that it’s all bogged down in its Eeyore meets Game of Thrones philosophy. As an adult, I’d much rather just reread Harry Potter or the Chronicles of Narnia and get some sort of feeling of hope and optimism for humankind out of them. This book isn’t essential reading for fans of those series, as the back cover copy claims; it’s what would happen if Zack Snyder was allowed to write their movie adaptations. It’s mind-boggling to me that someone could write a whole book about going to magic school and saving a fantasy world and sap every last bit of fun or joy out of it, but that’s what author Lev Grossman managed to do.