It’s tempting to call Lev Grossman’s marvelous new book The Magicians derivative: In a way, it follows the Harry Potter novels, the Narnia series, and everything J.R.R. Tolkien ever did. After all, it involves a bunch of kids who attend a college designed to teach them how to use magic, and who later visit a magical world populated by talking animals. But early reviews calling out the book for lack of imagination are missing the point. Grossman’s triumph is that he treats these magical worlds of childhood seriously.
The Magicians is an uneasy but rewarding marriage between popcorn fantasy and psychological realism. More than anything, it’s about the sorrow that results from the revelation that even a world containing magic is a cold, harsh place, where true love doesn’t always conquer all, and ennui chokes out ambition like so many weeds in a garden. Plenty of fantasies have traded on the ground broken by J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, and Tolkien, but The Magicians is one of the few to really ponder the psychology of a talking bear.
What makes the book so terrific is Grossman’s large, varied cast of characters. He starts with the Potter three—a young man raised by non-magical parents who discovers a world of wonder, a perilously smart girl whose head outraces her heart, and a sidekick who resents being one—but he expands from there to include a self-loathing alcoholic homosexual, a drama queen hung up on the one guy she can never have, and assorted others. Their connections are tenuous but real, the hurt they deal to each other stings, and there’s no Dumbledore or Aslan to swoop in and save the day. Everyone in The Magicians is capable of great damage and great kindness, but not everyone realizes it, and they expect the usual rules of fantasy fiction to swoop in and save the day.
Magicians is episodic by nature, which may throw some readers off. But Grossman creates a spine that gives it life by depicting its protagonist’s attempts to resist depression—and to transition from childhood to adulthood—as something even magic can’t aid. Though the ending calls out too readily for a sequel, The Magicians is the best urban fantasy in years, a sad dream of what it means to want something badly and never fully reach it.