The Magicians.

First blog post from the Area Code games is up on the Draft Blog. Second one is filed and should appear on Friday morning. I’ll also be on the telecast of the Under Armour Game on ESPNU on Saturday, making a few short appearances from the stands or the dugout if we can work out the logistics.

Friend of the dish Lev Grossman came to my attention because of his work (with Richard Lacayo) on the TIME 100, and when I asked them to do a Q&A for the dish about that ranking, Lev asked if I’d be interested in reading his upcoming book, The Magicians, which comes out in hardcover on Tuesday. I knocked off the book on my flight to California on Tuesday – all but 20 pages, to be exact, although I finished the book before I got to my rental car – and absolutely recommend it. (And no, I wouldn’t recommend it solely because Lev’s a Friend of the dish. It’s legitimately awesome.)

The Magicians will inevitably be called a grown-up rejoinder to Harry Potter, and Grossman does borrow from Rowling’s works while alluding to other giants of the fantasy genre, from Narnia to Middle Earth to Faerûn. The central character, Quentin, is a young, very bright, heartsick loner in present-day Brooklyn who dreams of a world like that in his favorite series of books, about a magical world called Fillory which is accessed through a grandfather clock in the house of a British family. Quentin is a skilled magician in the real-world sense of card tricks and disappearing nickels, but eventually discovers that the magic of spells and incantations is real and enrolls at a college for magicians that bears a few resemblances to Hogwarts. Unlike the innocent teenagers of Harry Potter’s world, however, Quentin and his classmates drink, smoke, swear, and screw, although I think they do more drinking than the other three things combined, and eventually embark on a sort of kill-the-big-foozle quest that defies their (and the reader’s) expectations.

Grossman manages to straddle the line between straight storycraft and outright parody brilliantly. One can read The Magicians as a retelling of the Potter myth with older kids, greater tragedies, and more complex interactions between characters, as well as several cliche-mocking twists in the final hundred-odd pages that skewer not just Rowling’s work but the standard plot devices of fantasy and science fiction. (There’s also a great shot across Rowling’s bow in defense of American magic.) Yet never does the book descend to the superficial, sneering tone that pure parody often has, as The Magicians‘ story stands strongly on its own, built around a complex, brooding central character, and an accelerating plot that grows from school-aged dramas involving crushes and difficult exams to life-and-death struggles in another world. He adds depth to two of the main characters with glimpses into their dysfunctional family lives, and ties up just about every loose plot strand or seemingly incongruous event as the novel speeds to a too-early finish – and the final two pages seemed word-perfect to me both as I read them and as I replayed them for hours after reading.

I do have minor quibbles with the book – there’s a “why do bad things happen to good people” discussion that seemed cursory and labored, and the way Quentin discovers a friend of his is gay was a little out of place and didn’t end up tying into anything else in the book. There is also one major event near the novel’s end that was like a slug to the chest to read, although I could see it as a counterpoint to Rowling, who largely skipped that sort of tragedy in Deathly Hallows (justifiably, given her audience). Grossman is also a big fan of the sentence fragment – “But still.” appeared at least twice – although I think that will only annoy the sliver of you who are as hardcore about grammar as I am.

Where The Magicians succeeds most is in Grossman’s creation of an immersive world within his book, and then a world within that world for his characters. Fforde, Rowling, and Murakami all have that ability to draw me into the pages of a book so that finishing the work is akin to waking from a pleasant dream. Grossman has achieved that same feat here.

Next up: Why not follow this with another book from the TIME 100? Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart.


  1. Is it still a good read if I haven’t read Harry Potter? Thanks

  2. It is quite possible to be as hardcore about grammar, Keith, without be nearly so prescriptive as you are.

  3. Following Brian’s point, are the other books (Narnia, LOTR, etc.) necessary to read as well?

  4. No, I don’t think you’ll miss much. Some references are explicit and others are obvious even if you haven’t read the books (I haven’t read the Narnia books yet, for example). There is also a pretty funny reference to Dungeons & Dragons that Grossman makes clear, so if you never got into DnD you’ll still get the joke.

  5. Keith

    I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but who’s eligible for the Area Code games? All high school players? Only those entering their senior year? College kids?

    Sidenote- if I hear one more NY writer/reporter/radio pundit say that Joba’s performance was gutsy or gritty, I’m going to lose my mind.

  6. Faerûn? Wow. I’m impressed, though that’s not a word I thought I’d ever see here.

  7. Keith, I posted this in your chat a few weeks back, and thought it may have been to long for you to answer.

    This is complicated, but just something I have been pondering. Team A has 8MM in their draft budget. They draft 50 players, and rank them in tiers. They then offer tier 1 the full 8 MM of that money. This expends their entire draft budget. Would the rest of the draftees be out of luck because the team will not negotiate with them at all. Sort of like a scholarship system for a MLB team. Only if players in Tier 1 turn down their offers will the team look to offer players in tier 2 and so on. Or when a player gets drafted, does the team let him know that an offer will be coming?

  8. Any word on which team put the claim in on Rios?

  9. Keith-

    You haven’t read any Narnia? I’m going back and trying to finish the series. I’ve read LWW and Magician’s Nephew. Does anyone have a recommendation as to the best order? I heard that the chronological order is not the proper sequential order, but that even the intended sequential order is not ideal, as certain books work better read together. Any suggestions?

  10. BSK-

    You’ve already read the two books that stir up the most controversy regarding reading order. Beyond that, Caspian, Voyage, and Silver Chair are usually read together (both the chronological and publication orders list them this way). The Horse and His Boy is pretty much self contained. Of course, finish up with the Last Battle.

  11. Reading order for Narnia is tricky. Being familiar with the story already, I’d read chronologically now. The real question in reading order is what to do with the Magician’s Nephew and The Horse and His Boy. If I had never read the stories before, I think I’d want to go LWW, Magician’s Nephew, Horse & His Boy, Caspian Triad, The Last Battle. The Publication order probably works as well with Magician’s Nephew and Horse and His Boy falling between the Caspian Triad and the Last Battle.

  12. DAS and JBird-

    Thanks. I felt like reading Magician’s Nephew when I did made sense ultimately. It seemed to be primarily a “prequel” to LWW, though it definitely should not have been read before. I’ll take your suggestions regarding the rest.

  13. “…from Narnia to Middle Earth to Faerûn.”

    I’m worried that the other ESPN analysts will beat up Keith and take his lunch money, despite his Radar Gun of Scouting (+2 INT).

  14. I had to look up “Faerûn” to spell it properly. Some friends of mine tried to get me into DnD in high school, but it didn’t take. Fortunately Grossman makes his DnD references very explicit.

  15. Driving home from an appointment today and heard this on NPR:

    and this was interesting and applicable too:

  16. I just finished up The Magicians today and I have to say Fillory is Narnia almost to a T. Having read the whole Narnia series (not a fan), I loved parts of this book. Keith, I know you said you haven’t read them (only worth it if you want to get angry), but Lewis has a heavy-handed approach when it comes to his religious beliefs. That is why the character of Richard is so fascinating to me. I feel like he almost represents CS Lewis. From Quentin’s and Richard’s relationship to the fact that he plays a major (while unseen) role in the ending leaves me questioning Grossman’s standing on Lewis. He takes his world and characters and mocks it to an extent but the character that most represents a Lewisian character is the savior. I want to re-read the debate between Q and Richard, but Grossman is pretty hard on Lewis and I love it!


  1. […] Grossman, whose The Magicians was one of the best books I read in 2009, wrote a book in that genre that dispenses with the […]

  2. […] Next up: Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, the sequel to his 2009 novel The Magicians, which I reviewed that August. […]

  3. […] The Magicians, Lev Grossman’s fantasy novel that was also a parody of popular fantasy novels, is one of my […]