This is perhaps the best fantasy series I’ve read since Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. Reddit’s Fantasy subforum rated it #25 on its all-time list, and it’s not hard to see why it’s way up there (though I would probably put it higher, easily in the top 15).

Title: The Magicians (3-book Series)
Author: Lev Grossman
Narrator: Mark Bramhall

That subreddit recently had a thread which asked “So, in what fantasy world would you LEAST like to live?” This was my reply, which earned over 70 upvotes (a lot for that small sub):

They’re all pretty risky. But IMO the worst would be the Earth of Lev Grossman’s Magicians series.
– Magic is ultra-rare; you’re not going to have any, so just forget about it
– Everyone thinks the magic world is fiction and nobody knows how to get there
– Many/most intelligent people are bored and auto-piloting through life
– There isn’t any protection against the powerful elites who run the world
– Those with magic tend to be assholes
– There are no real monsters; no heroes are really needed

Er… wait….

Oh god…..

Dubious humor aside, this gives a pretty good idea of the general idea of the story, which is a kind of emotional opposite of Harry Potter. High school graduates receive a letter inviting them to a magic university, and they can go off and earn their degree in what the protagonist amusingly calls one point, “steal-o-mancy” — lots of tricks on getting through life with convenience and style, not so much about the theory and origin of magical power.

And then what? Stealing money from ATMs (hence the above quote) is easy, and indeed these 1%ers have very little to worry about in life. And that’s the problem — you can go look for wayward magicians who like to hurt people and bring them to justice if you really want to, but there are few of these and even they’re mostly harmless. Who cares?

You might wonder how a story like this could possibly be interesting at all — but oh, it absolutely does. Grossman bases his story on a kind of exploration of an old story that Carl Sagan told in one of his books about an old lady that interrupted Bertrand Russell once at a seminar to complain that all this talk about an infinite universe was nonsense, and that everyone knows that the world is a flat disc strapped to the back of a turtle. When Russell asked her what was holding the turtle up, she replied, “why, it’s turtles all the way down!”

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Turtles all the way down! (Remind anyone of Discworld?)

And so are the people of this world are very much in the dark about their power. Indeed, their school program does everything it can to discourage them from finding out. Here’s a fun quote from one of the books that helps to make the point:

“He thought life was going to be like a novel, starring him on his own personal Hero’s Journey, and that the world would provide him with an endless series of evils to triumph over and life lessons to learn. It took him a white to figure out that wasn’t how it worked.”

And so as you might imagine, the story is an exploration of that idea. Could there be something/someone out there making all this possible? Can we find out what it is?

Enhancing the story is Grossman’s wonderful use of language. He writes in these long, dense, descriptive sentences that utterly demand your full attention. Here are some fun examples that I’ve been saving for my blog review (note that each of these is a SINGLE SENTENCE!):

“All that summer she roamed north into Canada, west as far as Chicago, south to Tennessee and Louisiana and all the way down to Key West, a back-breaking, clutch-grinding, vinyl-sticky trip that yielded a face-palmingly disappointing twelve-page spellbook in a cat-infested bungalow next door to the Hemmingway Home.”

And another one-sentence-wonder that I really loved (spoiler removed):

“He was a year behind Quentin and Alice, but by the end of his fourth year ____ had decided, he explained once his audience was assembled and dressed and arranged around him in the living with drinks and plates, standing and lying full length on couches or sitting cross-legged on the floor as their physical and emotional conditions permitted, that Breakbills had taught him everything it was going to teach him. “

As you might imagine, this amazing prose is highly enhanced by the wonderful talent of reader Mark Bramhall, also known for his work on books by R. A. Salvatore, Margaret Atwood, William S. Burroughs, Flannery O’Connor and Zane Grey. Bramhall brings an amazing depth to the work, not just differentiating the voices of the characters, but adding a real sense of texture to the complex emotions that the story deals in. And yet, never once is scenery chewed or a moment overplayed. The tone is perfect throughout.

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The model for Fillory, the book within the book.

Another fun thing about The Magician is Grossman’s use of a more traditional fantasy novel within the story called “Fillory and Further”, which is clearly modelled after C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia”. All the characters know the story and many, like the protagonist, wish they could go there. This forms a common theme of the book and generates a lot of its plot points as well, but of course its main purpose is to symbolize the contrast between exciting fantasy and seemingly-boring reality.

I read an interview with Lev Grossman in which he said something along the lines of how he loved the Harry Potter and Narnia books, but how as wonderful as they were, they didn’t seem to address his reality — the reality of his own youth. The reality in which, once the story ends, we still have to go to work the next day, and put food on the table, and deal with the morning commute. He wanted to write a story that was both stimulating and interesting and yet still reflected the reality of everyday life. What if it really IS “turtles all the way down”?

Check this one out, folks — it’s awesome, and I’m adding it to my “top shelf” picks.

Note: Avoid the TV show, by the way, unless you’re absolutely convinced that you’re not going to read these. A friend who hasn’t read the books told me that they enjoyed it, but I couldn’t get through the first episode because it was clear that they’d completely re-arranged the story and immediately spoiled most of the really good plot points that come later on. It looked like they undermined the main theme of the books as well and were trying to turn it into a cheesy Harry Potter knock-off, but like I said I’ve only seen the first episode so maybe it’s not like that. 

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