Exposing the human condition through magic

By Jorie Schwab

Jorie Schwab is a senior and the editor and founder of the online Creative Arts Magazine. This is her fourth year writing for The Talon. Jorie is also a staff writer and section editor for online news source The Prospect, and enjoys working on fiction novels and short stories in her time off from journalism. She is also a high school athlete and avid reader. Her favorite book of all time is The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas.

Posted: April 8, 2015

With all the magic based stories around, what does your mind believe magic should be like? Open your mind and take a look into a medley of it with The Magicians Trilogy

There’s a schism in literary fiction that passes unnoticed to the general reader. It travels under the guise of unchangeable personal preference and it painfully limits readers’ literary spheres. It’s the harsh divide between realism and fantasy; a debate characterized by tropes, snobs vs. nerds, that only deepen the void.

However, not all authors bend to this convention of separation. Some are willing to step up and meld the realistic with the fantastic. This conglomeration of magic and the hard hitting, uncomfortable, and painful aspects of life is what makes Lev Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy so unique.

Grossman is a self proclaimed “nerd” who grew up with two English professors as parents. His childhood was a mashup of classic literature and snuck fantasy novels, and this is evident in his work.

The Magicians Trilogy is Harry Potter goes to Narnia through the lens of a dark existentialist with nihilistic tendencies. No longer is there a black and white moral background, an obvious hero and villain, there are only shades of gray.

Against the norm: something different

The first book in the series, The Magicians, introduces Grossman’s protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, his magical peers, the fantastical college Brakebills, and the alternate universe of Fillory. Quentin is a flawed individual who often struggles with his magic, upstaged regularly by his friend Alice, a character comparable in many ways to Hermione.

However, unlike Harry Potter, Quentin and his friends don’t spend their free time sipping innocent butterbeer. Instead they live a very real life in their magical universe filled with sex, drugs and alcohol. There isn’t a golden glow covering the front of these books, but a gray cloud of anxiety bordering, and sometimes dipping, into depression.

Uncomfortable reality in fiction

The Magicians is a fast paced novel, especially the introductory focused beginning. Years at Brakebills pass by in paragraphs, another marked difference between Grossman’s fantasy and say, George R. R. Martin’s. At first the rapid movement of time, so contrary to the other fantasy novels that I love, made me uncomfortable, if not even a little peeved.

However, as I sunk further into the elegant literary prose of Grossman’s work, I realized this was not some child’s novel, it was literary fiction at its finest. The real world. Except with magic.

Another hiccup in my enjoyment of The Magicians occurred because I expected major events to fill it, battles and manic energy to burst off the page, like they do in every Tamora Pierce novel.

But The Magicians was the story of life. Action came, and love dominated behind the greasy exterior of Quentin’s selfish flaws, but it was slow in its arrival.

And even when it did come, it wasn’t a huge focus. Or even a huge chunk of the book. It was just another scene. Just another memory to haunt the already depressed Quentin.

Because Grossman doesn’t pull punches when it comes to his characters. They struggle through obscene and painful trials, and often emerge only holding their lives together by a thread. Rarely, if ever, in the entire series is everything happy, and nothing comes for free, not even the magic.

This is not Harry Potter

Unlike Harry Potter where magic is bestowed seemingly randomly among the population, attracting a variety of intelligence from Neville Longbottom to Hermione Granger. The magic in The Magicians is reserved for genius.

Brakebills, the college that recruits Quentin, only whisks away the very brightest of high school seniors through their magical portals. The top 1% of America’s youth. And even after they are magically forced out of their mundane lives, Quentin was living in Brooklyn, New York, they still have to pass a rigorous exam before they can be admitted to Brakebills.

And even after acceptance, only extended to a little more than a hundred people per year, magic still doesn’t come easily. At first, it seemed that reading about Quentin’s hours of reading and study, and minute hand movement drills would get old.

Unlike Harry Potter where a simple wand wave can do almost anything, in Grossman’s universe each spell requires knowledge of ancient languages, focus, and lots and lots of practice.

But all this is is just another thread Grossman uses to bind fantasy with reality. There’s no free lunch for magicians here, they have to work as hard to perfect their skills as a human would for any other talent.

However, even despite all the work they put in, there still is varying degrees of natural talent at Brakebills. And there’s a cap on how much magic many of the students can do.

Human problems in a magical story

Quentin is a gifted magician, for all that he isn’t the best, and his self deprecation keeps him thinking he’s about to fail. But beyond his talents, which grow with every book of the trilogy, Quentin often lacks the other heroic qualities of the “normal” fantasy protagonist. (Think Tolkien, Rowling, etc.)

Quentin struggles with caring about others’ emotions, often making rash decisions purely out of boredom that cause people close to him great pain. He also lacks a lot of leadership ability.

By the last book in the trilogy, released in 2014, The Magician’s Land, he is starting to learn, but he is also over 30 years old.

For much of the early two novels Quentin is at turns both whiny and desperate, a child that seems unable to mature. In many ways, he is exactly what readers don’t want in a protagonist. He’s not a role model, and often he’s not even good.

But this only makes Grossman’s stories even better. The reader relates to Quentin’s imperfections, and in the moments when his innocence, his true and unwavering view of the beauty of magic, shines through, the reader is touched at an emotional level that most authors can only dream of reaching.

Real life isn’t as heartwarming as you thought

And with the backdrop of Fillory, a magical land that Quentin grew up reading about in books clearly based off of the Narnia Chronicles, and then discovers the door to, Grossman ties a string to the hearts of his readers’ childhood and yanks. Fillory is beautiful and awe-inspiring, but it is also dangerous and the scene of one of Quentin’s most painful trials.

And it is in Fillory, where it would seem everything could be possible, where Quentin begins to truly understand the ramifications of his limits.

Despite the fact that Fillory is a mythical land populated by unicorns, talking animals, ram gods, and even a horse called the Cozy Horse that is giant and made out of velveteen, the reader begins to see himself/herself in the tales.

Since fantasy first began to develop, and Tolkien began taking over the market Jane Austen once ruled, literary critics have called out fantasy as a lesser form of writing.

A genre characterized by lazy, sweeping movement through grand and theatrical plots that need no effort to draw in the reader looking for their childhood.

Go against the stereotypes

However, with The Magicians trilogy Grossman destroys each of these arguments. His novel is an in depth look at the inner workings of humanity.

In fact, his fantastical novel often teaches more about the human condition of our world than the realistic fiction of late.

It’s a snapshot of life, with magic swirled throughout in brilliant hues of color to create novels unique, memorable and deeply impactful. The Magicians Trilogy is a work of magic. And humanity.

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