He’d wasted so much time thinking, It’s all a dream, and It should have been somebody else, and Nothing lasts forever. It was time he started acting like who he was: a nineteen-year-old student at a secret college for real, actual magic.(p.106)
Is 'postmodern' an appropriate word for a fantasy novel in which the characters are fully aware of the fantasy genre? The Magicians is packed with references to the Harry Potter books, to Tolkien, and to 'Fillory' -- a Narnia-equivalent secondary world fantasy series that's captivated protagonist Quentin since childhood.
Quentin is snatched from miserable mundanity on the eve of his entrance exam for Harvard; he's spirited away to what he first thinks is Fillory, but turns out to be upstate New York, to sit an exam that grants him admission to Brakebills, the only school of magic in North America. The first half of The Magicians covers his years at Brakebills: he makes friends, encounters something malevolent from another world, hooks up with a talented fellow student, and learns to do magic ("you don't just wave a wand and yell some made-up Latin").
In the second half of the novel, Quentin and his classmates are out on their own in the real world, adrift. And then they go to Fillory and find that there's more to the stories than their author, Christopher Plover, divulged in print.
I don't want to talk about the details of the plot here, except to say that there are things Grossman can examine that would be out of place in books intended for a younger audience. This is not a novel about a magical war, about heroism, about dreams coming true and courage being rewarded. The Magicians is about what happens when you get what you want and and you're still not happy; about the paving of the road to hell; about being broken, mentally or physically or both. About how easy it is to become a monster.
Out there he had been on the edge of serious depression, and worse, he had been in danger of learning to really dislike himself. He was on the verge of incurring the kind of inward damage you didn’t heal from, ever. (p.42)
Quentin isn't a likeable character. At times it feels as though he's wandered in from a Brett Easton Ellis novel. He's never happy, seldom even content. In the passage above he's congratulating himself, or being congratulated, on having escaped that inward damage, that self-hatred: but I don't think he has escaped it. I think it's there, poisoning him and incidentally driving the plot, throughout the novel. And I don't think his perception of himself (or, indeed, of anything else) is to be trusted, because others see more in him than we are shown from his perspective. The question is not, "Why does X love Quentin?" but "What does X see that we don't?"
Lev Grossman's written a column for Tor on allusions in The Magicians: read it here.
Currently reading the sequel, The Magician King: I have a long list of things that I'd like Mr Grossman to explore.