For a generation of grown-up Harrys and Hermiones, Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” seems to be just what Madam Pomfrey ordered — a fun dose of magical escapism set in a more grown-up college setting. Fans of the Potter genre and other wizard school novels may be disappointed, however, by the cynicism that pervades Grossman’s writing.
“The Magicians” is boldly metafictional, invoking tropes from Narnia, Harry Potter and other traditional fantasy novels even as it gently mocks them. The novel follows the story of boy genius Quentin as he finds himself attending wizard school and seeking out the ending to his favorite fantasy series, the Pillory chronicles.
When Quentin finds himself entering the Pillory series midway through the book, however, he is suddenly dismayed to find that his fantastic heroes are not what he expected.
It’s clear that Grossman is a well-read fan of the fantasy genre, but what’s missing from his play on traditional fantasy is any real, astute commentary on the genre he is riffing.
The novel’s length is almost a commentary on the traditions of the genre in itself, but the long, meandering journey through pages begins to feel labored once the thrill of the novel’s concept starts to wear off. Grossman takes a long time to get the plot moving, and once he does, it evaporates almost immediately.
Grossman is a gifted writer, and his decision to set a magical adventure in a collegiate setting can feel both timely and a little sad to college students who are fast outgrowing “Potter.”
The novel is an interesting read for grown-up fans of fantasy, but it would be a mistake to expect the kind of whimsical escape that the genre offers younger readers. “The Magicians” is doing a more serious task, and reminding us of our fast-approaching maturity in the process.