As you may recall from my review of Angelology, one of my pet peeves is literary authors who tackle genre fiction as if they're slumming. Book critic pretensions to the contrary, literary fiction is just another genre -- some people like it, I don't particularly unless there's a darn good story attached, but there is an unfortunate perception that it's automatically more sophisticated writing and more worthy of respect than "genre" fiction that features detectives, spaceships, or monsters.
Still, a literary author can do genre fiction well if s/he brings with him/her a love of the genre. Lev Grossman brought a very sharp knife. He took Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia, slashed their wrists, put them in a nice warm tub, and said, "Isn't this pretty and grim?"
So, here's the book jacket blurb:
A thrilling and original coming-of-age novel about a young man practicing magic in the real world. Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A senior in high school, he’s still secretly preoccupied with a series of fantasy novels he read as a child, set in a magical land called Fillory. Imagine his surprise when he finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the craft of modern sorcery.
He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. Something is missing, though. Magic doesn’t bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he dreamed it would. After graduation he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real. But the land of Quentin’s fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he could have imagined. His childhood dream becomes a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart.
At once psychologically piercing and magnificently absorbing, The Magicians boldly moves into uncharted literary territory, imagining magic as practiced by real people, with their capricious desires and volatile emotions. Lev Grossman creates an utterly original world in which good and evil aren’t black and white, love and sex aren’t simple or innocent, and power comes at a terrible price.
I'd say that's an accurate enough summary of the story. I would, however, omit the words "thrilling," "original," "piercing," "absorbing," "boldly," and "uncharted."
There is nothing subtle or even coy about Grossman's riff on Rowling: Harry Potter is referenced implicitly and explicitly throughout the text, and Brakebills is a slightly Americanized Hogwarts for all practical purposes. The Potter references are predictably snide, from the interminable
Now, a dark and gritty, even satiric interpretation of the source material could still be a good read. I'm a Potter fan myself, and still somewhat fond of the Narnia books despite their Sunday school earnestness, but I wouldn't mind seeing them given an adult treatment, and there's certainly plenty in both Rowling and Lewis's writing that could stand to be dissected. Unfortunately, in Grossman's world, "adult" means sucking all the joy and sense of wonder out of the setting and replacing it with disaffected teenagers who are just too smug and self-absorbed to enjoy, much less care about, anything.
So, by the time we get to the actual story (which doesn't happen until the second half of the book; the first half is just the main characters' school years), Grossman has let us know that anyone who actually takes this shit seriously is a chump. Only dorky losers are actually enthusiastic and think magic is cool and believe in "adventures" and saving the world. Literally: the one character who does believe all that is the dorky loser who everyone else hates. Does he get his moment to shine and prove them all wrong? No, when he steps up and tries to be the hero during the climax, he gets his arms chewed off. "Gotcha, chump!" says Grossman.
Also, the old double-standard: the main character cheats on his girlfriend and walks away clean. Well, no dirtier than he was before. His girlfriend, in anger, cheats on him in retaliation. With the dorky loser. Guess who doesn't walk away clean?
Which goes to the really fatal flaw, the worst thing about the book: there is no character development. None. Not a single person changes for the better (or even, really, at all). The main character even gets stuck alone in Fillory and goes on an epic quest, crossing oceans and continents, and when he finally succeeds... he goes home and decides magic sucks and turns his back on it forever. Which does nothing to improve him; he's still an aimless, apathetic little punk, with no appreciation for anything that he has experienced. There was not one goddamned character in this book who was likeable or who I cared about!
There are a few good bits inserted here and there -- "The Beast" was actually quite chilling, and the characters' transformation into geese and subsequent "migration" to Brakebills South, in Antarctica, was well done. If you like literary fiction with a fantasy flavor, maybe you will like the writing, but the worldbuilding, while occasionally clever, is not really an "adult" version of a YA fantasy; it's a cynical, loveless version of a YA fantasy with all the fun and excitement sucked out of it.
I came away from The Magicians feeling like Lev Grossman just doesn't understand how grown-ups can enjoy Harry Potter, so he decided to write it the way grown-ups would appreciate it: all blood and sex and drugs and smug, smarmy cynicism. He stripped away anything he considered "juvenile," but he also stripped away anything I'd consider fun to read in the process.