The Magicians, by Lev Grossman is more than just Harry Potter Goes to College, although that is an apt description. I can’t imagine any current or future novel set in a magical school not being compared to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter in some way. She may not have created the genre, but she wrote such an impactful series of books that Harry Potter will be the touchstone to which all others in the genre are compared. Much like LOTR is generally held as the standard for quest style fantasy fiction.
That being said, the more mature themes that Grossman’s characters experience make this a very different book than the first Harry Potter. It’s not only an exploration of Brakebills, it is also an exploration of a sort of millennial angst and a young man’s search for his place in the world. Especially when Quentin, the main character finds out that his place is basically the top of the heap (being a magician) and he may need to find something else to make his world meaningful. I think of that as a comparison to the young adults of today who have been brought up staunchly middle or upper class and now find that just because you have a job and enough clothes and food, that life isn’t necessarily meaningful and happy. Quentin suffers from this same problem.
To me, the more impactful part of the book centered on the fictional world of Fillory. Who among us didn’t read the experiences of the Pevensie children and their travels to Narnia? C.S. Lewis’ classic gave us all a reasonable hope that we could find such magical adventures if only we opened the right closet door. Grossman seems to understand sharply that desire and gives us an idea of what can happen when that sort of fantasy becomes reality. And as we all know somewhere in our subconscious, the fantasy land that appears in such books is never truly as wonderful as words make it. There is always a different reality in the world itself and Quentin and team find out what happens in Fillory once the story in the books of their childhood ends.
With those trappings, the story is really one about Quentin Coldwater and his inability to grow up. Or maybe a better way to say that would be the book is about the choices he makes while trying not to grow up. He embraces magic at Brakebills and finds friends, but it’s not until the end of the novel that he fully realizes what friendship can cost and what it means.
All this being said, The Magicians is the first in a trilogy that has been recently completed with the publishing of The Magician’s Land. It’s not often that I would recommend this, but truly, the best (and only book worth reading) in the trilogy is The Magicians. The second book, The Magician King, (spoiler alert) had an unnecessarily sexually violent ending and the third, The Magician’s Land, I found to be a bit boring. Maybe I was missing some sort of metaphysical message Grossman was sending. In any case, The Magicians is a very complete story in itself and can be read as a stand-alone novel.