When Lev Grossman, author of a trilogy involving a magical parallel world called Fillory, crossed paths with me a few years ago, I asked whether he had truly named a monster in The Magicians after science fiction novelist Edgar Pangborn.
He looked at me and said, “You know another Pangborn?”
I knew that I’d found the fantasy novels for adult me.
The Lord of the Rings made teenage me want to write fiction, but Tolkien’s lackluster imitators made me a reader of sf, horror, crime and literary fiction—damn near any genre but high fantasy. Furthermore, a lifetime of delving the history of sf has left me with a head full of its creators’ names and the obscure sometime-poetry of their titles. When I came across a character in The Magicians referring to an artifact called “a Hand of Oberon,” I smiled despite never having read the like-titled Roger Zelazny novel.
That first Fillory book introduces Quentin Coldwater, his friends and a school that teaches magic—a place called Brakebills, as hidden from the wider world as the existence of magic itself in Grossman’s setting. Over the course of The Magicians, Quentin learns that his favorite childhood books, fantasies set in the Narnia-like realm of Fillory, came to be inspired by actual events in a very real Fillory. Eventually, he heads there and back again.
The long result for the Brakebills bunch could be summed up as otherworldly quests punctuated by communal dipsomania, crossed hearts and sexual perversity in the big city. Although Grossman name-checks the Harry Potter books and many other works of the fantastique, his magic-users say fuck with the same aplomb they devote to reciting Legrand’s Hammer Charm and other spells. Beyond following a group of hypersmart geeks who self-consciously bring imagined lifetimes of reading superhero comics and Tolkien to their sometimes Tolkienesque or superheroic actions, The Magicians appears to engage a startling notion from quantum physics: that the imagining of fictional worlds conjures them into being.
Even a minimally talented fantasist understands that magic always has costs, or it undoes story like any other deus ex machina. Grossman vaults gratuitously above so low a threshold and executes an Ouroborosian loop wherein science, which historically evolved from alchemy, hovers amid his characters’ discussions over/enactments of/philosophizing about magic.
Quentin, Janet, Eliot and other central characters belong to a clique called the Physical Kids (think physics again) rather than, say, House Gryffindor. This essentially rationalist underpinning to the irrational pursuit called magic provides the net I had sought for years, unbeknownst even to myself.
By book two, The Magician King, Quentin holds one of Fillory’s four thrones, alongside some former classmates and one magic school washout. He does so uncomfortably, as he does almost everything, including occupying his own skin. The quadruple crown-winners and their allies suffer terrible losses in the course of getting where they are, and Quentin suffers more than most of them do. In that way of human unhappiness familiar to readers of John Updike, for example, the character invents his own troubles here.
Having managed to exile himself from his hard-won perch, Quentin traverses the magical demimonde that taught Julia her craft after she blew the Brakebills entrance exam. The costs to Quentin and company by novel’s end grow steep—Julia, whose back story unfurls alongside the main narrative, pays with her humanity. Grossman navigates the fantastique with such expertise here that Julia’s outcome feels as tragic as a casual reader might presume it to be, as transformative as a singularity-obsessed futurist might expect it to be and as mysterious as an ontologist might “know” it to be.
All this talk of toeing lines between genres might make the Fillory novels sound academically arid. They comprise, in fact, the funniest and most don’t-bother-me-I-need-to-read fiction I’ve encountered in years.
Grossman tosses into a list of Fillorian room furnishings such bits as, “dead animals ruthlessly stuffed in the very act of begging for mercy.” In our world, he describes the lawns of suburban New England homes as having “gone completely shock-and-awe on the pine trees.” I refuse to spoil even one example of his dialogue, which manages to feel naturalistic and lapidary at the same time. The gender and sexual politics of Grossman’s books are infinitely progressive compared to Tolkien’s, say, though I do wish other forms of diversity didn’t feel like such late invitations to the Fillory party.
Despite my eagerness to read book three, The Magician’s Land, I found several early hurdles to my enjoyment of it. It starts like a caper novel for magic users, with Quentin trying to ensorcel his way onto a team whose announced goal is unambiguously criminal. He then retraces his path to this low point. At Brakebills, earlier, he manages as a teacher to find something near contentment (which, for this character, seems at times like unobtainium), but fate and someone from his past intervene. A new character, Plum, does little to ingratiate herself in her earliest scenes, chronologically speaking, and I left the book untouched for weeks. Then I found myself resenting the intrusion of Fillory scenes upon that perfectly readable caper novel. Ultimately, I came to resent each thread equally once both became as captivating as anything in the previous books.
Rather than spoil the convoluted plot, I’d like to take the opportunity to get personal. I know, through the media rather than through my limited acquaintance with the author, that Grossman suffers from what he calls (in a Salon interview) a “midlife depression,” but he also identifies his blues as providing essential inspiration to this trilogy. Having Quentin haunted, or maybe stalked, by someone who may be his own blue—angel? demon?—and whom he wants simultaneously to engage and to avoid offers one of those triumphal concretized metaphors that justifies my hopes for a literary genre I’ve found otherwise rife with disappointments. Were it the author’s only such coup here, he would still have created something not to be missed.
Instead, once Grossman finds his stride in this uneven third book, he goes from one sprezzatura moment to another. As a reader following a character who, like Julia, becomes inhuman through magic use, I felt at one moment what Robert Silverberg intimated he felt after taking inspiration for an entire short story from a single phrase by another author (whom I’ll name momentarily): “I have been declared invisible.”
By the point at which Grossman reveals the secrets of the enchanted library he calls the Neitherlands, the fecundity of his invention harmonizes with the resonances of his characters, believable and heart-breaking even as they trip in and out of godhead. The ways he remakes themes familiar from such 20th-century classics as “The Library of Babel” leaves me with one ineluctable truth: Lev Grossman is our Borges.
Edward Austin Hall co-edited the anthology Mothership: Tales From Afrofuturism and Beyond with Bill Campbell. Hall’s short fiction has appeared in the journal eyedrumperiodically.org and been adapted for broadcast on Georgia Tech’s “Sci Fi Lab” radio program.