On first glance, Lev Grossman's new novel, The Magicians, looks very much like a Harry Potter story, only with slightly older characters, and an American setting. The hero, Quentin, is a teenager from Brooklyn on his way to a Princeton admissions interview when he's whisked through a portal to an Academy of Magic called Brakebills.
But Quentin differs from Harry Potter in that he reads fantasy novels, and he's enchanted to discover that the magic he's longed for all his life actually exists. Grossman says he's always wondered why Potter wasn't a fan of the genre:
"If I had grown up the way Harry did — in an abusive, loveless step-family — all I would have done was read fantasy. I would have been consumed by these ... stories about escape and power. And I always wondered why Harry wasn't a fantasy reader," he says.
Grossman, who works as the book critic for Time magazine, says that when he was young, he was particularly taken with J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia saga.
In Grossman's novel, the hero is obsessed with a series of books about a magical land called Fillory, which is much like Narnia. But at Brakebills, Quentin discovers that in real magic, things don't always work out the way they do in fantasy novels. When Quentin casts a prank spell in a magic class, he inadvertently summons a beast who eats one of his classmates. As he writes:
Things like this didn't happen in Fillory: there was conflict, and even violence, but it was always heroic and ennobling, and anybody really good and important who bought it along the way came back to life at the end of the book. Now there was a rip in the corner of his perfect world, and fear and sadness were pouring in like freezing filthy water through a busted dam.
Elizabeth Hand, who reviewed The Magicians for Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine, says the novel is beautifully written, with well-drawn, believable characters.
"One of the coolest aspects of this book is that the students at Brakebills College act like real college students," says Hand. "This is not your mother's Hogwarts. ... these are kids or students who are having relationships with each other. Some of them are having romantic or sexual relationships. There are students who are gay as well as straight. Students occasionally making references to drugs."
In the Harry Potter books and their film adaptations — as in most fantasy stories — there is a powerful malevolent being that the hero fights in an epic battle. But Grossman says he purposely left the villain out of his novel. He says that without a "big bad villain" Quentin's world is more complex.
"When you take [the villain] away, suddenly the universe gets a whole lot more complicated," he explains. "Suddenly it's all shades of gray. And it's not clear who belongs where. And it's not clear what magic is for."
In the end, the young magicians in Grossman's novel do use their magic to battle evil, but only after discovering a portal to the magical realm of Fillory, which they thought only existed in their novels.
The Magicians is Grossman's third novel, but it's his first fantasy book. The author says he used to care about being a "literary novelist," but now all he cares about is telling a good story.
"There's a strong tradition in the 20th century that is against storytelling," he says. "I wanted to move past that. I wanted to write something that was pure pleasure. ... and I felt that in doing so, you didn't have to give up the kind of beautiful, lyrical self-aware literary language that we associate with literary novels."
Grossman, who is now writing a sequel to The Magicians, says magic is a perfect metaphor for the power of language: Words can cast a spell, and change the universe.