Quentin walked through the Brooklyn cold to his Princeton interview, only to find that his interviewer was dead. Even more surprisingly, one of the paramedics, a very attractive young woman, handed him and his best friend envelopes with their names on them. Quentin took his, but his friend did not, and found that it was the previously unknown sixth Fillory novel. Fillory was another world that some British children found by accident, and two of whom would have adventures there every year, and then be sent back by the two rams, who served as gods of the world. The children were not permitted to stay, but one of the boys ran into the woods instead of going back. In the last book, the two girls were given magical buttons that would enable them to go to an in-between world, and from there to Fillory. One of the girls promptly buried them. The author of the books claimed that they were true stories that he had written from what the children told him. The series was popular with children, with most children having read them at one time during their childhood.
Quentin opens the book and a piece of paper blows out into the empty garden next door. He chases it into the tangle of vines and emerges into somewhere green and warm, which he learns is Brakebills, a private college in upstate New York, and he has been invited for the entrance examination. He passes the preliminary exam, which writes itself and asks him all sorts of odd questions, like to design a language, then translate something in that language. The second part is individual examinations, which make no sense to him. The Dean is frustrated that they cannot find a twentieth, and skeptical that Quentin is a Candidate, so he is rather brusque. Quentin’s resulting anger pushes him into unknowingly saying an incantation in his made-up language, and doing real magic to his cards, having them fall into a card house, turning all of them queens of different colors and suites (including some new ones).
Brakebills turns out to be a cross between a prep school and an ivy league school for magic, established in the sixteenth century, and surrounded by spells that keep it invisible to outsiders (and due to the age of the spells, the weather is several months behind, hence summer in the winter). Quentin had longed for magic to be real, like the wonder of Fillory, but he was disappointed when he started learning. Magic turned out to be tedious, like a language where the subject and verb have to agree, except instead of just agreeing in number and gender, they have to agree with everything around them, so you have to say the incantation slightly differently depending on the season, the weather, the phase of the moon, etc. There was a girl in his class of twenty, Alice, who seemed effortlessly good at magic, but not only was she painfully shy, his magical ability was nowhere in her league. For Quentin, learning magic was a struggle. Still, he was good at it, and was selected with Alice and a punk boy named Penny to skip a grade. It requires several months of extra private tutoring by professors and tiring practice, but Alice and he pass and are promoted to second year in December.
Skipping a grade had advantages in learning, but social disadvantages, since now he was out of sync with his peers in the old grade, but seen as upstarts by his current grade, and he has difficulty making friends. Alice is a little more comfortable with him by now, but still not very. Christmas and summer vacations are a little tedious; the real world is so much more boring than the magical one, and he discovers he has little in common with his old friends or his parents.
In the third year students got categorized into Discplines of magic. Quentin was indeterminate (not uncommon, apparently), and placed into Physical Magic with Alice, the only two students that year. Their initiation was to get into the Physical Magic house, which they succeeded in doing by Alice creating a large lens and focusing the light of the setting sun to cut the door in half. There were not many students in Physical Magic. Eliot, the first person he had met, was there. He was fashionable, a bit of a rebel, and it soon became clear that he drank too much. Quentin and also inadvertently seen a homosexual twist of his. Janet was a flamboyant girl who tended to be a leader (and controlling), and tried to bag everyone. It seemed she was attracted to Eliot, but obviously without success. Josh was unremarkable, and always felt like a bit of an imposter; magic did not seem natural to him, although once he learned something well he was excellent in it.
In third year Professor March had caught Quentin unaware, waking him out of a doze to ask a question. He was saved from further humiliation by Amanda Orloff asking an innocent clarifying question which forced Professor March to divert to an explanation. Quentin subtly messed up an incantation Professor March was doing in Old Dutch and he stumbled over a word. Something happened and a well-dress man with a branch obscuring his face showed up out of nowhere, and everyone was unable to move for hours, during which he examined the room. He also ate Amanda Orloff, but they found that out later. The appearance of the The Beast put the whole school on edge, and also highlighted the dangers of magic. Who knows what was out there in other worlds? Best to not let it get in this one.
In fourth year the masters decided that Brakebills should join the international welters tournament. Welters was a sort of battle-chess game played on a special board, with squares of different materials, where you tried to get the players on the other team to touch water. Janet insisted that the Physical Kids, as they called themselves, have a good team. No one was particularly enthusiastic, but they did practice and they did reasonably well, despite Josh occasionally choking his spells.
The fourth years all disappeared for half the year (one half of the class during the first half of the year, the second half during the last half of the year), and refused to talk about it afterwards. It was their turn the last half of the year. Quentin, Alice, and the three older ones (they hadn’t gone the year before because of the incident with The Beast), and the other half of the class went up to the roof one night, where one of the professors transformed them into geese. The whole flock followed magical lines and flew down to Antarctica, honking and enjoying the life of interminable flying. And eating bugs, which grossed some of the girls out when they were transformed back into humans once they arrived by a surly Russian professor. His job was to make the language of magic an instinctive part of them. The way to do that was rote practice through every permutation. They were already tired from the long flight, having lost a lot of weight, and the practice became interminable as well. They were too tired to do much else. Even the walls were an interminable white.
Once the professor turned them all into arctic foxes and they played around with ice. Then Quentin caught a whiff of an intoxicating scent and the game changed. The scent turned out to be Alice, whom he was quite attracted to, but seemed distant. His animal brain when crazy and he chased after her and mated with her in front of everyone, which was a bit embarrassing. Later that day, when they were back as humans, Alice asked Quentin if he loved her. He said he didn’t know, and she said that she’d enjoyed the sex. He shortly found that he did love her, and they became closer, as much as was possible given the grueling schedule.
The final exam (optional) was to travel to the south pole naked. To get there was a demonstration that magic was in you: it was a long trek even with magic. He made it, very tired, and the professor was visibly proud of him and congratulated him. It turned out there were only two students that had the guts: he and Alice (who arrived several days ahead). He was transported back to Brakebills by portal. He and Alice had fun being in love together, and had lots of sex, commandeering the top room of the Physical Kid’s house.
Janet told them a story in the Spring, when they were all outside. Some years prior, a female student named Emily Greenstreet had fallen madly in love with a teacher. He had a bit of a fling with her, but called it off, and she went all mopey down to one of the fountains in the magical maze, where she found a mopey girl staring back at her in the reflection of a fountain. This fountain did not reflect properly, it seemed to reflect from somewhere different. This girl suggested Emily’s problem was her appearance and taught her a spell to change it. It was a hard spell, and it did change her appearance, but apparently to the hideous. There was a boy who was in love with her, and she reached out to him, and he cast a Major Arcana spell from the Renaissance, but it was late at night and and he knew she was not really in to him, so he was not in a good emotional state, and the spell got away from him, consuming him in blue fire and turning him into a niffin. Janet knew that the boy in the story was Alice’s brother, whom Alice had thought died in a car accident, and she told it to get back at her, because Alice and Quentin were in love, but Eliot did not return her love.
The older students graduated and moved to New York City. Quentin visited Alice’s parents for a week, who turned out to have a pretty dysfunctional marriage. Fifth year passed uneventfully, except for the ceremony just prior to graduation, where the dean took everyone to a deep chamber, so far below Brakebills that it was outside the range of the spells. He conjured up iron demons and put them in a tattoo in each students back, which a password. The demon would fight for them (once) when released. There were strong, unknown things out there, like the Beast, and it was best to be prepared. They also got a key that would take them back to Brakebills.
Alice and Quentin moved to New York City and joined the other three. Outside in the real world, you had to create your own raison d’etre, and none of them had it. There was a fund for young magicians getting on their feet, and Eliot, Janet, and Quentin used it to drink and party a lot. Alice was not really into the partying, and studied a lot. They lived together, but led separate lives, she studying during the day, and he partying all night. All of them had a dinner party one evening, and Quentin got pretty drunk. Between the malaise of his ennui, the alcohol, and Janet’s revealing skirt, he became inflamed with her and they slept together. He woke up with her and Eliot all in the same bed, with vague memories of what happened, and a realization that he had betrayed Alice. Alice was quietly seething at him, which is when Penny arrived with the news that he had found one of the buttons to Fillory.
He had happened across a magic dealer and had purchased the button not knowing what it was, but then found himself pursued by magical catastrophes, so he investigated and determined it was one of the buttons given to the children to return to Fillory. He put spells all around the apartment, and told them about it, saying that he had been to the city in-between the worlds. They tested it out, and sure enough there was a city. It was empty of people, but had lots of tall buildings with books in them, and endless squares with fountains in them. It seemed abandoned, but Penny’s spray-painted markings to show where the fountain to out world was would disappear if he had been gone a while.
The real world had been one painful disappointment to Quentin. He had been an outcast as a gifted student in Brooklyn; smart but set apart. His dream of wonder-inspiring magic turned out to be tedious details. The real world was unexciting, but there was no purpose to being a magician. His relationship with Alice, which had been so wonderful, had been spoiled. She had yelled at him one time that he could never love someone else until he loved himself, otherwise he’d only get bored with whatever he did. The only thing left for him was Fillory, where all the books described a wonderful world, and purpose, because the children were always brought there for a reason by the rams. They all went to a house in rural New York to prepare to go to Fillory. Alice continued to burn with anger, and Quentin with regret, but they were irreconcilable. Alice worked with Penny to weaponize magic (taking inspiration from the Dungeon and Dragons spells), because no one knew if Fillory was actually safe, and it was better to be safe than sorry. She eventually slept with Penny to get back at Quentin. Quentin did not sleep at all that day, and so he was a little loopy the next morning and pushed them all to finally go to Fillory, which they had been putting off doing.
They went, and Fillory was cold. They explored a little, finding a woman in a stream, who they rescued, but she turned out to be a dryad. She said it wasn’t their war to fight and gave them a horn to blow in their extreme need. They went back to get coats, and then discovered that time didn’t work the same, and now it was too warm in Fillory. So they left the coats and went exploring, coming to an inn. They bought drinks for a bear with some gold they had brought and tried to chat up the bear, not entirely successfully. The next day, though, they talked with people in the inn and when things quieted down, a couple at a table in the back introduced themselves and offered to be their guide to the tomb of one of the rams.
It seemed that Fillory had fallen on hard times. The rams, which had seemed gods and in loving control of Fillory, were a historical figure and had not been seen in ages. They seemed fallible and mortal, unable to maintain the wonder of the books. The forest was creeping up and taking over the farmland, so every year some of the farmers left for the capital city. There was a war going on (as Quentin found first hand early on, when he avoided being killed by an arrow only because Penny cast a spell to snatch it out of the air).
They went with their guides, who were quite experienced in magical fighting, while they were pathetic, with the exception of Penny who scored a few hits. They quickly came to the ram’s tomb and went in, fighting increasingly hard battles and getting lost in the dark. Most of them released their demon in defense. On the plus side, Alice and Quentin reconciled, having discovered as they came to each other’s defense that they loved each other. Deep in the tomb they came to a long table filled with food, where they were attacked by many creatures and fled, running lost trying to save their lives. Although they lost each other, they each made it to the tomb deep in the heart. One of the rams was there, and Penny, who desired to serve the rams as the children had served them (though most of the rest of them felt like the rams were sort of a god-who-wasn’t). The ram was a bit old-fashioned, and did not really seem to Quentin to understand the situation. He blew the horn, against the strong recommendation of the ram, who said he did not know what he was doing. The ram turned out to be right. The horn summoned the Beast, who turned out to be the child in the Fillory books who had run away. He had learned dark magic in the forest, and had become exceedingly strong (and developed a liking for human flesh). He, too, had seen Fillory as his end of pain, but in protecting himself against having to go back to painful England, where he had been sexually abused by the author of the books (who had been a family friend), he became a monster. He ate Penny’s hands, preventing him from doing magic. A battle ensued, but the Beast survived everything they threw at him, even killing the last ram. Finally, Alice cast one of the arcana spells, not for the effect, but for the side effect of becoming a niffin, and as she became fiery energy she killed the Beast.
Quentin woke up some months later in a hospital tended by centaurs. He got to know the centaurs, who were wise (but not any better than anyone else; they kept herds of horses for sexual servants). He was paid a visit by one of the children of the Fillory books, who had devoted her life to finding her brother, who had run amok. She got a watch from the dwarves that would allow her to reset time, and so she tried many different ways of getting rid of her brother, but Quentin’s timeline was the only one that had come even close to working. (She was the one who had given him the portal to Brakebills. In fact, she had written the sixth book.) Despite his grief over Alice’s death, she refused to turn time back, and destroyed the watch.
Quentin returned to our world, where he visited Brakebills for help, and was assigned a meaningless job as an executive at one of the companies owned by the American magical community. But surfing the web all day was meaningless, too. Then Janet, Josh, and Eliot show up. They explained more what had happened. Penny had gone to one of the buildings in the city-in-between, held up the stumps of his hands, and was granted admittance. The other three had been reigning as kings and queens in Fillory. There were supposed to be four, though, and they had come to taken Quentin back with him. So he went.
I read The Magicians because it was recommended in an article on the “30 best fantasy series”. However, it is sort of an anti-fantasy book, kind of like The Princess Bride. Fillory is obviously based off of Narnia: children returned every year for a task, a male animal that acts like God that returns them to their own world, four children who are supposed to be kinds, the city instead of the wood between the world, the buttons instead of rings, and even the water to travel between the worlds and the differing flow of time. But whatever the mythical Fillory books were, the real Fillory is not Narnia; it has all the problems of our world, and the same lack of God that most of America lives with. Brakebills is obviously Hogwarts of Harry Potter fame (they even mention Harry Potter once while they were in school), but without the wonder. Hogwarts is full of quirky, humorous things around every turn, but Brakebills is a stuffy prep school and magic is drudgery. The Magicians is fantasy with the wonder subtracted. It seems to be intentional, making a statement that the world is not a fantasy. But it comes off as Catcher in the Rye. I do not want to read about teenage angst, or poor sexual decisions, or numbing the ennui of the real world with alcohol. In fact, I struggle with the angst and the lack of purpose portrayed in the book, but reading a book that says “hey, the world is painful” is hardly an meaningful experience that would add make life richer.
It is not fantasy, either. Fantasy could be described as simply an imaginary world, but as a genre, fantasy is the magical world we all long for. Narnia uses fantasy to show how God works in the world, and ultimately ends with a promise of “further up and further in!” where heaven is described as a never-ending fractal of increasingly wonder-ful exploration with God. Harry Potter uses fantasy to inspire wonder but also to portray the difference between love and evil. Similarly, Tolkien uses the form of Norse epic to pain a picture of how faithfulness, kindness, and devotion overcome evil. The excellent series beginning with The Riddle-Master of Hed uses fantasy to show how the abandonment and aloneness we experience has purpose in making us able to come into our inheritance.
The Magicians is none of that. Fillory is Narnia sucked dry. Brakebills is Hogwarts without life. There five main characters have no nobility, only coarse language, alcohol, and poor decisions. C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, Tolkien, and McKillip offer stories that create culture, enriching life by portraying the best of what humanity has to offer. As C.S. Lewis and Tolkien say somewhat differently, the fact that we long for a world full of wonder suggests that we were made for that, but something has gone wrong and while there is pain now, there is hope that we will be restored. Grossman seems to say, poppycock, there is no God, there is no wonder, life is meaningless, and the best we get is the camaraderie of very flawed friends. If Lewis is wrong, then Grossman’s approach is the logical one, but if so, then his book does a good job of showing what we have to look forward to. But perhaps Lewis is right, and fantasy is a herald proclaiming the world that we lost, and that God is in the process of restoring. Certainly it is a lot more fun to read.