Lev Grossman's novel The Magicians may just be the most subversive, gripping and enchanting fantasy novel I've read this century. Quentin Coldwater is a nerdy, depressed, high-achieving Brooklyn kid who finds himself hijacked from his Princeton interview and whisked away to Brakebills Academy, a school of magic upstate on the Hudson. He passes the entrance exam and begins his education as a wizard.
This is a familiar-sounding setup, but Grossman's extremely clever hack on the fantasy novel is in his complete lack of sentimentality about magic. Quentin has lived his whole life waiting to be taken to an imaginary magic kingdom ("Fillory," a thinly veiled version of Narnia) but he quickly discovers that real magic — like stage magic — is about an endless grind of numbing practice in the hopes of impressing someone — anyone. All of Brakebills, from the faculty to the student body, is broken in some important way, and Quentin is no exception. In a place of scintillating minds and bottomless commitment to craft, Quentin's life is not substantially better than it is in Brooklyn. Brakebills isn't Hogwarts (at one point, the narrator notes that magic wands aren't used at Brakebills, being regarded as a kind of embarrassing prosthesis — like a sex toy for magic).
Quentin's cycle — mundane, magic student, magician in the world, questing adventurer — serves as a scalpel that slices open the soft, sentimental belly of the fantasy canon, from Tolkien to Lewis to Baum, but still (and this is the fantastic part), it manages to be full of wonder. Wonder without sentimentality. Wonder without awe.
Grossman is a hell of a pacer, and the book rips along, whole seasons tossed out in a single sentence, all the boring mortar ground off the bricks, so that the book comes across as a sheer, seamless face that you can't stop yourself from tumbling down once you launch yourself off the first page. This isn't just an exercise in exploring what we love about fantasy and the lies we tell ourselves about it — it's a shit-kicking, gripping, tightly plotted novel that makes you want to take the afternoon off work to finish it.
It must run in the family; Lev is the identical twin brother of Austin "Soon I Will Be Invincible" Grossman, another one-of-a-kind novelist.
I read the paper edition of The Magicians, but I'm delighted to see that there's an unabridged audio edition on DRM-free CDs. This is the kind of fairy story I could seriously dig having read aloud to me the second time around (and I don't think I'll be able to read this one just once).