This morning I finished Lev Grossman’s 2009 novel The Magicians. At the end of the book, Quentin Coldwater, the protagonist of the story, is approximately the same as me, but the story begins when he is 17, preparing for college. Due to the amount of time that is covered in 400 pages, the story can lurch forward at times and cover huge swaths of ground in the matter of a couple of chapters. If The Magicians didn’t so clearly flesh out its characters or do such assured world-building, that could create major issues. But Grossman undoubtedly knew precisely what he wanted the world (worlds I suppose) to be and it prevents the story from ever faltering.
As I thought back about the book, I realized that the memories of my own college experience are similar to the way the story is told and my emotions and entire worldview were similar to Quentin’s and I have no doubt that the majority of the readers of the book felt the same way. Though the story infuses many, MANY fantasy elements – it is about magicians and a magicians college in upstate New York who desire to visit a mystical land known as Fillory – it never overwhelms the story and takes many cues from Tolkien and C.S. Lewis without directly biting from those influences. It’s an immersive and robust world, but realism permeates throughout. Though Quentin provides our point of view, his love interest, Alice, becomes the pulse that keeps the story human and unexpected. She goes through the gamut of emotions that Quentin tells himself he is feeling, but she does it almost always as a means of coping or in an attempt to help someone else.
The set piece that provides the climax of the story is unsurprisingly epic but is surprisingly full of twists and a set of ever-evolving possible resolutions. Callbacks of small bits and pieces are important to the story’s final act, though I have no doubt that the speed at which the story will be consumed will pose no problem for the majority of readers. The ending leaves an opening for a sequel without requiring one. It is a strong self-contained book that has an ending that is more positive than the chapters leading up to the end would lead one to expect, but it never forsakes the characters. Momentum is a large component of the novel and it is never lost from the time that Quentin chases a slip of paper into a garden until he looks out a window at his friends at the end. It’s a novel of nuanced and visceral moments in equal measure that has me on edge preparing to start the sequel.