I have just finished reading The Magicians and have almost finished its sequel, The Magician King, and found them both an intense and exhilarating pleasure. I love the sense of a sparkling intelligence, both behind the pages and within the pages: Grossman writes very well about the hyper-smart, creating characters which are fresh, contemporary and recognisable, and who feel like people I’ve met. I wouldn’t say they’re like people I know, exactly: the kind of extravagant striving for excellence these kids grew up with is frowned on here in Australia. We don’t have the same culture of excellence, sadly. But I’ve met people like this, and been slightly intimidated by them and reminded of my own intellectual slipshoddiness.
One of the things I loved about these books (and please note, there may be some spoilers ahead if you haven’t read them) is the way he’s integrated a world of magic – which is fascinating, inventive, detailed, and convincing – with the real world. High-flown Narnian fantasy sits against psychological realism, the two of them tugging away at each other, questioning the tropes of fantasy fiction and its narrative and character conventions while also letting you enjoy them (such a balancing act!). He doesn’t exactly undercut them, but he brings a more questioning, more adult sensibility to the questions of power and what you do with it, quests and what happens on them and what they’re for, a constant movement between indulgence and disgust in the riches and the kingly business and the palazzos and all that, through a central character who is smart and too stuck in his own head to be a questing knight or an action hero (he’s a geeky Hamlet, not a Fortinbras).
In The Magician King Grossman introduces an idea that I love, and which feels very contemporary to me: the idea that running parallel to the institutionalised, authorised, Ivy League magic his hero Quentin learns at exclusive Brakebills, there’s another kind of magic – open source magic – which is polyglot and messy, inelegant, gathered from a myriad sources, but powerful, and dangerous. It’s a body of knowledge which is not fixed or policed or controlled, like the magic Quentin learns, and this makes it more personally risky but also potentially powerful. I suppose this is, in a way, a traditional division: think witchcraft vs science, for example, a division which is gendered, just as it is in this novel. But the idea of open source magic puts a contemporary spin on it, anchoring it in the present moment, and I like that.
I had a similar response when I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the first time, some years now. One of the surprising pleasures of Dracula was that it put something ancient and uncanny and evil in the midst of the (then) modern world. Dracula’s antagonists are in a real, concrete scientific world filled with train timetables and communication technology and medical science (they try to save Lucy with blood transfusions – very cutting edge) and it’s this juxtaposition of the familiar with the strange and terrifying that makes the book so terrifying. This conjunction, I’m told, is one of the hallmarks of urban fantasy; as a reader straying out of the halls of literary fiction, I couldn’t say I know enough to comment on where the Grossman novels sit in terms of the genre as a whole (i.e. new, exciting, amazing, run of the mill, XX did it much better, why not just read the Narnia books, etc etc). To me, they feel fresh and exciting.
If there’s something about these two books that feels under-developed, it’s the question of what magicians do in our world. The Magicians makes that a very real question – what will Quentin do when he finishes? – but doesn’t go very far in supplying answers (because he’s whisked off, thrillingly, to go adventuring in other realms). And because I loved where Grossman does take us I don’t particularly mind that; but I am curious about it. Brakebills’ graduates seem to float in the realm of wish-fulfilment – living in great apartments in Manhattan, partying hard, buying palazzos, never having to worry about money – which is fine, and fun of course, but slightly unsatisfying. Much more interesting, because there’s a sense of difficulty in it, is the representation of the world Julia moves through in The Magician King to acquire her magical education: a creepy world of strange people in skanky houses, many of them with personality disorders, living that divided existence familiar to many of us who try to combine art with real-world jobs.
Giving up on magical thinking and your desire for there to be more than the real world – magic and fairies, dragons and goblins, aliens and other worlds – is a part of growing up, but it is a sad part of growing up, because it makes the world seem smaller. The Magicians and its sequel plays in this space, both giving us the fantasy world we long for, and destabilising it in various ways, but allowing us to believe in the fantasy – in Fantasy, in Fillory – for a little bit longer. While still keeping our sceptical, grown-up hats on.