realist fantasy – The Magicians

Ever felt a peculiar restlessness dogging your footsteps which refuses to go away? Ever felt as if you:

had painstakingly assembled all the ingredients of happiness, had performed all the necessary rituals, spoken the words, lit the candles, made the sacrifices but happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come.

That’s the theme which Grossman explores in his intelligent fantasy novel, “The Magicians”. (Sidenote: isn’t the way Grossman put that restless feeling into words absolutely delicious?)

The book explores the story of one Quentin Coldwater whose fantasies come to life when he stumbles into Brakebills College and discovers that he might very well be a magician; a real and actual magician. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s another Harry Potter though. It’s not. Darker but so much more relatable, it delves into one question over and again – what do you do if you have the entire world at your feet and yet something is still missing from your life?

When we first meet Quentin, who’s a ridiculously brilliant young man, he’s not happy. Brakebills comes to his rescue and he no longer feels like he’s struggling to breathe. However, that isn’t the neatly wrapped, decorated-with-a-bow finish that Grossman gives to his story. He relentlessly forces Quentin to confront his dissatisfaction again and again. With all their brilliance and power why didn’t the magicians just invent a pill to make themselves happy wonders Quentin. He has power literally at his fingertips but has no idea about what he’s supposed to do with it.

Even after he finds Fillory (a series of children’s fantasy books which has a Narnia like world) to be real and finds his way into it – a deep rooted yearning which had been a part of his life from the time he read the first Fillory book – the gaping hole remains unplugged:

There was a time when this had been his most passionate hope, when it would have ravished him with happiness. It was just so weird, he thought sadly. Why now, when it was actually happening, did the seductions of Fillory feel so crude and unwanted? Its groping hands so clumsy? He thought he’d left this feeling behind long ago in Brooklyn, or at least at Brakebills. How could it have followed him here, of all places? How far did he have to run? If Fillory failed him he would have nothing left! A wave of frustration and panic surged through him. He had to get rid of it, break the pattern! Or maybe this was different, maybe there really was something off here. Maybe the hollowness was in Fillory, not in him.

This thought-provoking novel doesn’t really give Quentin or the readers any straightforward answers but Quentin’s journey as he struggles to grasp that kernel of happiness which refuses to stay in his hold is eminently relatable and readable. Grossman makes you run through the entire gamut of emotions as you find yourself cheering for Quentin and then hating him and then sympathizing with him as you see him through his own eyes.

Along the way Quentin falls in love with a painfully shy and socially awkward young woman named Alice. Here’s how Grossman describes the initial stages of their friendship:

He (Quentin) wasn’t sure they were friends, exactly, but she was unfolding a little. He felt like a safecracker who – partly by luck – had sussed out the first digit in a lengthy, arduous combination.

The book is filled with gems like these. Who hasn’t met an Elliot who:

was obviously one of those people who felt at home in the world – he was naturally buoyant, where Quentin felt like he had to dog-paddle constantly, exhaustingly, humiliatingly, just to get one sip of air.

Exquisitely written, Grossman has a gift for grasping words which tend to dance at the periphery of your consciousness. Sample this:

They maneuvered around one another with the absolute confidence of people who had spent huge amounts of time together, who trusted and loved one another and who knew how to show one another off to best advantage and how to curb each other’s boring and annoying habits.

One thing which I did wish Grossman had dwelled more on was his remarkable description of the magical world. Since the magic provides a context in which the characters find themselves, Grossman doesn’t focus a lot on the details of the magical world. However, the glimpses he provides certainly makes me wish he had.

For example, the test which Quentin had to give to prove his merit for admittance to Brakebillls (no, the fact that you had magical abilities did not guarantee your admission) had a question where:

He was asked to draw a rabbit that wouldn’t keep still as he drew it – as soon as it had paws it scratched itself luxuriously and then went hopping off around the page, nibbling at the other questions, so that he had to chase it with the pencil to finish filling in the fur. He wound up pacificying it with some hastily sketched radishes and then drawing a fence around it to keep it in line.

Or the description of Brakebills’ library:

In the nineteenth century Brakebills had appointed a librarian with a highly romantic imagination who had envisioned a mobile library in which the books fluttered from shelf to shelf like birds, reorganizing themselves spontaneously under their own power in response to searches. For the first few months the effect was said to have been quite dramatic. A painting of the scene survived as a mural behind the circulation desk, with enormous atlases soaring around the place like condors.

But the system turned out to be totally impractical. The wear and tear on the spines alone was too costly, and the books were disobedient. The librarian had imagined he could summon a great book to perch on his hand just by shouting out its call number but in actuality they were just too willful, and some were actively predatory. The librarian was swiftly deposed, and his successor set about domesticating the books again, but even now there were stragglers, notably in Swiss History and Architecture 300-1399, that stubbornly flapped around near the ceiling.

The Magicians is an extremely interesting book to read. If you’re looking for a light/happy read, this definitely isn’t it; neither should you read it if you’re looking for an escapist fantasy story. The reason why I stayed up till 5:00 in the morning is because this fantasy story doesn’t lose grip of the reality – there are no black and white answers after-all. Wanting to escape into another world might be the thing that all of us fantasize about sometime or the other but ultimately there is no escaping from who we are.

That’s what I’m thinking. I’d love to know *your* thoughts!

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