The Magicians is a surprise and delight: its language is not overly showy and yet often contains an unexpected surprise, especially at the ends of sentences, as this early description shows: “Quentin was thin and tall, though he habitually hunched his shoulders in a vain attempt to brace himself against whatever blow was coming from the heavens, and which would logically hit the tall people first.” Until the last clause, one could be reading any novel, fantasy or otherwise, but saying that a blow from heaven would hit the tall first gives us Quentin’s personality in a single line, and yet its ideas are spun coherently across the entire novel.
Furthermore, the line shows an awareness of conventional description (how many characters have been described as tall and thin, as though being identified to the police?) and a willingness to subvert or upend that convention. Just as Grossman does so in terms of Quentin, he does so in terms of the fantasy genre more generally. When I write phrases like “the fantasy genre more generally,” they sound boring, but The Magicians is anything but: it’s the fresh air that blows through a land that has too often become dank and polluted through mere copying rather than innovation or real novelty.
Fantasy novels often live and (more often) die by the quality of the worlds they create and the rules that have to be set. If the novel has no rules whatsoever, it loses any point: the result is mindless chaos. If the rules are violated with impunity, they don’t seem real: it isn’t possible to fly in real life without an airplane, or glider, or whatever, and each device has constraints. Break too many rules and the world starts to seem superficial, knocking one from the experience of reading. If a character consistently breaks every rule that’s available, he or she eventually becomes God-like, which in turn seems pointless: if a character doesn’t have boundaries between themselves and what they desire, what’s the plot? They take what they want in a sentence. Dante’s Inferno is notoriously more fun and interesting than his Paradiso.
Fantasy novels fail when they gratuitously violate the rule they set for themselves. In middle school (which is age 11 – 14, for those not familiar with U.S. education customs), I read innumerable Dragonlance novels, each one worse than the one preceding it; one problem of the series as a whole was a wildly inconsistent magic system in which the heroes of one novel could be vastly more or less powerful than another. In another terribly series I read, The Sword of Truth, each novel depended on finding another villain even more powerful than the villain before, and a way to defeat that villain using ever more esoteric powers against them. Most of them also have comically juvenile view of sexuality, as I mentioned here—in The Sword of Truth, powerful women who have sex with men turn them into slavering servants who are willing to cut off their own genitalia. The bad guy is named Darken Rahl. Subtle, much?
One of Tolkien’s many brilliant decisions or realizations in The Lord of the Rings involves the fact that all the characters know the approximate borders of their powers; Gandalf often qualifies what he says, even in instances when it appears he knows the facts of a situation. While describing Frodo’s ordeal, Gandalf says, “This is what happened, as far as I can tell” (emphasis added). Gandalf was not there: he doesn’t know for sure based on eye-witness testimony. In short, he has a contingent view of the universe—a topic I’ll return.
There’s a great deal Gandalf doesn’t know, and that he knows he doesn’t know: that there’s a Balrog in Moria, or that one of the Palantiri is thrown by Wormtongue, or how, at first, to even enter Moria. So too with many of the situations in The Magicians: although Quentin and his friends don’t understand the world or each other in part due to adolescent fumbling and folly, his professors don’t understand it fully either: a mysterious entity appears in a classroom early on, and the magical protections that have been so laboriously woven around the school fail to keep this entity out; it would be like some force penetrating the security imposed by the Secret Service around the White House. The professors are stymied, and it’s a useful and terrifying moment precisely because no one knows what’s going on. In some ways, its randomness is scarier than the infinite varieties of dark lords who pop up like corn in Iowa, only to be mowed down by the scythe of heroes. There is so much we don’t know about the world, The Magicians implies, much as the modernist writers implied that there’s so much we don’t know about what goes in the human mind.
In The Magicians, magic is more like computer science or writing well or electrical engineering: it demands long study and practice to master, complete with incantation, confounding variables, deep thought, passionate virtuosity, and great precision. Grossman said in an interview with The New Yorker that “I was never really satisfied with what Rowling tells us about magic in Harry Potter. I never understood what was so hard about it—it just seems like swish and flick and expelliarmus and Bob’s your uncle.” It wasn’t hard. But then again, it isn’t as hard as one might expect in The Magicians, at least in the sense that its rules, limits, and details are never fully described, as one can, for example, find much of computer science is in the Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs or The Art of Computer Programming. Or maybe they are there, and Quentin doesn’t see fit to share them with us. If so, however, the magical equivalents of those two books are well hidden; we’re more often treated to descriptions of how difficult magic is than examples of it. Take this passage:
Talent was a part [of being able to use magic]—that silent, invisible exertion he felt in his chest every time a spell came out right. But there was also work, hard work, mountains of it. Every spell has to be adjusted and modified in a hundred ways according to the prevailing circumstances… under which it was cast… textbooks and teachers treated [magic] like an orderly system for the purposes of teaching it, but in reality it was complex and chaotic and organic… It was Mayakovsky’s intention to make them memorize all these minutiae, and not only to memorize them but absorb and internalize them.
All this comes from a single page. The writing isn’t especially inspired here, especially the bits about “invisible exertion” felt in the chest. But the ideas are fascinating, even if we have to ask: but what does that mean, to have spells that have to be ceaselessly adjusted and modified? We don’t know. Quentin expresses the same interest regarding the imaginary (in the sense of “invented for The Magicians“) novels regarding Fillory, a land much like Narnia written by an author named Plover: “Now that [Quentin] had been to Brakebills and knew something about real magic he could read Plover with a more critical eye. He wanted to know the details behind the spells.” He doesn’t find out. When he’s performing “magic tricks” in the conventional sense using cards, he finds that learning the skill “wasn’t romantic at all. It was grim and repetitive and deceptive. And he worked his ass off to become very good at it.” Writers, however, aren’t very good at being able to show this work in fictional form because it would bog down the narrative, even if they themselves have mastered their own systems. Another powerful tool underlying Tolkien is the Elvish languages and the ancient legends; although they’re never explained, one can feel their depth and the sense of crumbling history that underlies Weathertop and the Rauros Falls. But fully explaining the details of a magic system is much more tedious—better to say the practice is grim and repetitive than show us how grim and repetitive it can be.
It is possible to have such descriptions in novels; Neal Stephenson analogizes early computers to organs, as in the music instruments, and cryptography to bike chains in Cryptonomicon, deftly explaining both ideas in ways that don’t require one to have actually taken the math behind behind the concepts to nonetheless understand them. We don’t get that in The Magicians. But we do get many descriptions of the tests and rituals that are reminiscent of what students are widely subjected to in school today; I can remember having to take Washington State tests in middle and high school, the Pre-SAT, the SAT, a bundle of Advanced Placement (AP) tests, innumerable college finals, the LSAT, the general GRE, and the subject GRE. There are probably more than I’m remembering at the moment. I’m surprised that a greater number of novels don’t focus on the rigamarole modern students go through. Then again, in retrospect I doubt any of them have been all that vital to my overall well-being and happiness: for that, reading interesting books, my sex life, and having “enough” money have all been far more important. The better question is, why didn’t I realize that earlier?
Still, tests in magic land are somewhat more consequential: whether you go to Columbia, Cornell, Williams College, or the University of Washington is of far less consequence than whether you go to magic school. Calculus and statistics don’t change based on what conventional university you attend, but if you don’t get into Brakebills, you’re apparently stuck in the regular world that many apparently want to flee, but if they flee further than fantasy novels, they might search why the regular world is structured as it is—which Quentin discovers, as all young people in Bildungsromans must, the hard way. Sure, meeting the Elves of Middle-earth would be great, but what do you do without insole support while trooping through hundreds of miles of wilderness? And what about toilet paper?
When he gets more into magic than he cares to, Quentin thinks, “Everything was much less entertaining and more difficult to organize than they’d counted on.” It’s a bit like going to Mars: great in science fiction but really tough in real life. The modern Western world is filled with incredible logistical marvels like smooth roads, plumbing, electrification, and so forth, all of which we take for granted, and all of which fantasy novels tend to ignore. Focusing too much on what one doesn’t have would be boring, but remembering that it exists is still useful, as is the difficulty in acquiring real skills. The move to magic land isn’t an easy one; Quentin wakes up and felt “vaguely confused and regretful, like he’d drunk too much at a party with people he didn’t know very well and fallen asleep in the host’s spare bedroom.” Images of altered consciousness are more common when dealing with magic, which can come to symbolize drugs, science, and more: perhaps that’s part of what appeals about the idea of magic: that it can morph, becoming everything and nothing.
The only other fantasy novel I know of in which magic seems both hard and limited comes from Usrula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, but in the first three novels the characters behave more like idealized scholars or monks than people: they don’t have sex, they don’t get drunk, they don’t manipulate one another to achieve sex, drunkenness, power, or fame, and generally have adventures that are intellectually and spiritually encoded, unlike many prominent United States politicians who have used their power for more conventional purposes.
The Magicians is, in short, a self-conscious, or at least self-aware, fantasy novel, which very few books in the genre have been. In literary fiction, such ideas go back a long ways: the Modernists mapped the terrain extensively, John Barth wrote all over the maps with books like The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy, and by now it seems like many literary novelists are moving away from the overtly modernist or post-modernist ideals and towards greater subtlety, which Grossman shows. After I wrote the first draft of this paragraph, I saw a Grossman essay titled “Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard” in the Wall Street Journal, which also discusses the pervasive influence of modernism, which can too easily devolve into the pernicious influence of that school. Mark McGurl builds The Program Era around modernism’s legacy too. Perhaps authors are ready to move toward something else—which might also be a kind of return, but this time to Nineteenth Century novels, much as Post-Modernism was, in a fashion, a return to Eighteenth Century novels.
Self-consciousness imbued in plot that assumes a modernist view of character might be one way to that goal. Quentin thinks that, had he not gotten his wish, “He would have never have known the horror of really getting what he thought he wanted.” The bigger problem is that he thought he wanted the wrong thing and never corrected for it, and he treated adolescent love affairs like major issues of state, but without his parents around to take away his car keys and tell him that he’ll get over it. Instead, he finds the attractiveness of deadening emotions, or what he thinks “deadening emotions means,” when a particularly gruesome bit of what one can only call closer to the real world causes him to think, “The funny thing about it was how easy everything got, when nothing mattered.” Everything matters and nothing does: it sounds like unsourced Nietzsche, which is hardly a bad thing. Other very old ideas reappear too, like this:
In a way fighting like this was just like using magic. You said the words, and they altered the universe. By merely speaking you could create damage and pain, cause tears to fall, drive people away, make yourself feel better, make your life feel worse.
This could be an unusually clear example of speech act theory. But there are also allusions to Harry Potter, Tolkien, The Karate Kid (“Wax on, wax off”), C.S. Lewis, and probably other works I’ve missed. When Quentin and a classmate named Claire have to enter a door as part of a hazing ritual for their major, Physical magic, an older student eventually says that the door used to open when you said “friend” in Elvish—which Gandalf does to enter the Mines of Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. She doesn’t note, however, that there are multiple strands of Elvish, Sindarin being the most widely known, the language Gandalf speaks: for magicians, many of these characters are cavalier with details. Nonetheless, if I were confronted with a magic door, saying mellon would certainly be one of my first efforts.
For all Grossman’s skill, there are few language flaws in it: Grossman likes the adjective “pretty” too much (page 83: “A woman was fussing over him, a pretty woman.” Page 64: His tutor was Professor Sunderland, the pretty young woman who had asked him to draw maps during his Examination.”) But the language is skillful, the larger plot is an impressive construction, the genre bending works, and the larger philosophical issues mesh. In short, from the micro- to macroscopic, The Magicians works. Too many novels succeed on the micro level of language or the macro level of plot without putting the two together. Not everyone agrees: take this quote from M.A. Orthofer’s review of The Magician, for example:
Quentin, in particular, shows very little maturity — he remains literally a schoolboy — and there is essentially no personal growth to his character, his passage to adulthood flatlining over the course of the story. (The fact that he’s an unsympathetic shit for long stretches (as are a surprisingly large number of the other characters) may be realistic — that moody college age (though in his case it feels more like that moody tween age) … — but doesn’t help matters.)
Given his home life and the demands of the school for magic, Quentin shows surprising maturity much of the time in all matters except sexual ones; in that respect, he’s closer to 14 than to 20, at least given my current understanding of university-style behavior.
The Magicians offers much more than Orthofer gives it, in part because Orthofer is focused on the direct characterization rather than how the plot affects how characters react to their circumstances. The complaints about pacing have some justification to them in the sense that monsters aren’t ceaselessly arising, and the book has a habit of showing rather than telling, as previously discussed, but these are to my mind necessary parts of understanding the world. The Magicians is the kind of book I’d hoped The Name of the Wind would be: fun, fast-moving, and written by someone who has vast ideas that are expressed with nuance. It brings the paradoxical realism of the kind James Wood celebrates in How Fiction Works to fantasy.