Lev Grossman The Magicians Arrow Books 2009
Martin Chatwin was not an ordinary boy, but he thought that he was. In fact he was unusually clever and brave and kind for his age, he just didn’t know it. Martin thought that he was just an ordinary boy…
Christopher Plover The World in the Walls
You will of course have heard of the Fillory series by the late Christopher Plover (pronounced ‘Pluvver’, like the wading bird). In order the five titles are The World in the Walls, The Girl Who Told Time, The Flying Forest, The Secret Sea and The Wandering Dune. You will know all about the Chatwin children — Martin, Rupert, Fiona, Helen and Jane — and how they manage to escape to the magical land of Fillory, where they have adventures before they are called back to their own world. And you will remember that Martin was the only sibling to remain in Fillory because after The Wandering Dune the series just stopped, not long before Plover died in 1939.
You don’t remember? Surely you must — there’s even a Facebook page, Christopher Plover: The Fillory Series, to remind us. At least, it’s a page maintained by Lev Grossman or his publishers … but, ah, hang on. Doesn’t this smack a bit of The Chronicles of Narnia? Of course it does: that’s a deliberate ploy by Grossman, a bit of metafiction. I have to say that in The Magicians he carries off this particular sleight of hand extremely well (it’s fooled some gullible readers) — it’s all worlds within worlds, or rather parallel worlds. Grossman’s novel describes a world very like our own except that real magic exists; the Narnia books never appeared but the Fillory series did; J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books certainly get referenced (Hermione, threstrals, broomsticks, wands and the cottage in the grounds) but there is no South Pole Base in Antarctica. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that fantasy world of Fillory really existed on some plane of existence which one could readily access?
Quentin Coldwater is seventeen, and is off down Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue to be interviewed for Princeton. It doesn’t go according to plan. There’s a dead body, a mysterious messenger and an enigmatic manuscript entitled The Magicians: Book Six of Fillory and Further. Then there’s a space in some waste ground which shouldn’t exist, and somehow Quentin joins the new intake of Brakebills College, a higher education institution like no other in North America. Imagine the Hampden College student clique from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History plonked into some kind of Hogwarts University; remember the same intensity, the similarly obscure subject matter, the same possibilities for violent death — with the addition of magic. We see everything through the main protagonist’s eyes — family, staff, friends, enemies — while, simmering in the background, there is the clique’s collective obsession with the childhood novels of Fillory, and the fantasy that it may be a real place. But how dangerous would it be to enter this fictional world if access were ever possible?
I really did enjoy this book which, despite its nearly 500 pages, kept me reading avidly. It takes us at a steady pace through five years of Quentin’s education and beyond, with a tightknit quintet of friends, lovers and fellow students — Quentin, Eliot, Alice, Janet and Josh — sharing leisure, study and experiences. There are no paragons of virtue here, and they all have their weaknesses and foibles as well as strengths of character and magic abilities. Grossman somehow managed to sustain this reader’s affection for these flawed oddball characters, particularly Quentin: on the surface it’s hard to like a student who finds A grades easy yet spends much of the time vacillating and being depressed, but at a deeper level it’s easy to empathise with the growing pains of adolescence and the sense of being an outsider. I also rather suspect that there is a lot of Grossman himself in the figure of Quentin, which must lend depth to his characterisation.
Fiction dealing with the possibility of magic in a ‘real’ world for me preferably has to provide some kind of rationale for its nature and its limits, or at least construct a framework on which to hang it. All through The Magicians characters try to get a handle on this without the author actually specifying either nature or limitations; they theorise and experiment and create, they are catalysts at times or the magic is channelled through them. But always the narrative drives any reservations I have aside, for example in the epic journey of the geese from New York to Antarctica (perhaps inspired by Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, with the concept of a person’s spirit reincarnated in the body of a bird). For all its length there’s a deep satisfaction in the author’s plotting, where incidents apparently casually dropped into the action are shown to have significance later when you’ve all but forgotten them.
I have mentioned the occurrence of the number five — five undergraduates, five years of study, five books of Fillory — and it turns up in other ways, such as the pentagram tattooed on the backs of Brakebills graduates. But there is a sense that the number sequence continues. Fillory is the key: six graduates discover the ultimate secret in the sixth year after commencing at Brakebills; the purported Book Six of the fantasy series Quentin glimpses early on is entitled The Magicians, and in a sense Grossman’s novel is that sixth book, with the same title and promising resolution of several mysteries.
The Magicians seems to me absolute recompense for my disappointment in the same author’s Codex. The good news is that it’s part of a trilogy, subsequent volumes having been well received (though I’ve taken care to avoid reading any spoilers). The ultimate test for me of any book is, would I read it again? The answer, to paraphrase Christopher Plover, is that this is no ordinary book, and that it will go on the appropriate shelf for a revisit. Along with the realm Fillory.
Another review: Lizzie Ross HP for adults