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Lev Grossman
The Magicians
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2009

Penguin Putnam / Viking
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-870-02055-3
Publication Date: 08-11-2009
402 Pages; $26.95
Date Reviewed: 08-22-2009

Index:  Fantasy  General Fiction  Science Fiction

Nobody notices the magic in this world. There's plenty of it about, were one but to look, listen, or indeed — read. For all the high-tech wonders we surround ourselves with, there is no magic like that which happens when we surrender to a book, when we let the narrative, the words on page, take on a reality that is unequalled. And when the writer is also clearly a reader, that experience is heightened exponentially. Readers connect with the language in a unique manner. But when the language is directed not just at creating that separate fictional world, but uses that world and the characters within to address the effects of reading itself, a sort of feedback loop can occur. Reading writing about reading. We're there.

Quentin Coldwater is a reader and just one of 'The Magicians,' a compelling and ultimately memorable novel by Lev Grossman. As 'The Magicians' begins, Quentin is practicing sleight-of-hand magic tricks and waiting for his college-entrance interview. But a series of fortunate events, and a stray, wind-blown piece of paper lead him elsewhere. He finds himself at an entrance exam for Brakebills College of Magical Pedagogy, where the magic is no mere illusion. Graduates are invisibly integrated into society. The world is not as it seems; so yes, there are some illusions involved as well.

Quentin's favorite series of novels, and one he thinks of often as he goes through the rigorous curriculum of Brakebills, is Christopher Plover's Fillory and Further series, clearly modeled on C. S. Lewis's Narnia books. As he progresses through his classes, he's often reminded of them, because, as it happens, the key to magic is a combination of language and complicated hand-waving. Grossman skirts the edges of science fiction to make his magic system seem realm, and succeeds. These skills, and familiarity with fantasy literature, will be prove to be required for the travails that lay ahead.

Grossman's novel is that rare fantasy that takes place in a world realistic enough so that his characters are away that their unusual circumstances are mirrored in familiar fantasy literature, to wit, the Harry Potter books, which get a couple of mentions, along with other fantasy name-checks. But his prose is finely tuned and his sensibility and setting are thoroughly adult. 'The Magicians' is its own novel, strong enough to stand up to the works it references.

Grossman sets up his characters quickly and effectively. It's a large cast, but we come to know and if not love, at least enjoy reading about everyone. Readers will find it rather amazing in hindsight how effectively Grossman creates each of his protagonists. The novel follows Quentin and his incoming class through four years of study. Grossman has a great handle on his post-adolescent characters and the teachers who guide them. He offers the right sort of details to bring everyone and their magic to life.

The plot unfolds in two acts; education and experience. Remarkably, he manages to whip through four years of magic college in the first half of the novel, setting up the world, the characters and the conflicts to follow in a series of often gripping scenes. Once the kids graduate, there's a bit of a lull in the action, but the idyll, so to speak, is quickly torn asunder as the many threads set up in the first half are knotted and set on fire in the second. You'll be tempted to read without interruption; the downside of doing so is that you may finish the novel before you're ready to leave the world.

'The Magicians,' however, is not simply an action-oriented thriller about students at a magic academy. Grossman is quite aware of his readers and their immersion in his fantasy, and he uses the meta-fictional Fillory novels to comment on the reading experience. Moreover, this commentary on the reading experience becomes a sort of pot driver itself, adding to the feedback loop. He's not overly self-conscious about any of this. The "A-ha!" moments are not advertised, but they add a level of pleasure to those who enjoy reading about reading. Grossman keep himself and his ideas in the background, and lets the reader do the very pleasurable job of putting this all together. Read slowly; linger. Once you've assembled Grossman's world in your mind, you'll not want to leave the magic behind.

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