I was never interested in Lev Grossman. I resisted reading The Magicians for two years, mostly because it’s described as, “Harry Potter for grownups,” which sounds terrible. But eventually I broke down (Grossman is a critic, and I’m always interested to see what happens there) and read it, and largely, I enjoyed it. The real-life stuff that happens to Quentin and his friends before they discover the land of Fillory, I thought was great: struggling with the end of high school, grappling with teenage lust, being disillusioned with their urban lives, discovering Brakebills, the magic college, learning who the villains are, playing with the limits of good and evil. All excellent.
However, near the end of the book, when the group finally stumbles into the fantasy land that they thought only existed in fiction, I felt that the novel took a bit of a nosedive. Oddly, it seemed like once they entered “Fantasy,” things weren’t quite as fantastical. I did recommend the book, though.
Now, the sequel is here, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to pick it up. Grossman read from The Magician King at Vroman’s last night, so I decided I’d go, and if it sounded promising, I’d buy the book.
I guess I wasn’t expecting quite a….uh, Genre crowd. Waiting for the event to begin, the people sitting in my row were reading the following books, respectively: Black Order, James Rollins, Wonder Woman Odyssey, Vol. 1, Star Wars Millennium Falcon.
Seriously, major nerd-fest. And Grossman was like the high priest. King, actually: Grossman recently won the Campbell Award for best new writer, and was crowned with a brass and jewel-studded tiara, which he donned for us last night. The nerds went wild.
The reading was really fun. Grossman is funny and disarming, while retaining that classic awkwardness inherent to people who spend their days immersed in imaginary worlds with talking animals.
I’d been thinking a lot about the line between children’s books that adults can enjoy (Harry Potter) and adult novels about child characters (Karen Russell comes to mind). I wondered what made Grossman a part of the latter pack, or even if he thought of himself that way. In listening to him read, the only real distinction I could make was that the writing is simply very good in a subtle, mature way. I asked him why he chose to make his characters college-aged, not quite children, not quite adults. He said that, first and foremost, “if the characters were younger, the whole thing would be way too Hogwartsy…I always assumed that anyone reading my book would be using Harry Potter as a reference.” He also wanted his characters to be, “a little more hip to their own problems than you are in middle school or high school.”
Naturally, there was a lot of Harry Potter talk, and numerous inside jokes. The most interesting reference was when a girl in the audience asked Grossman how he’d conceived of his villain (who is, I have to admit, truly horrifying): “I don’t want to downplay what a massive Harry Potter fan I am, because I really am, but to be honest, I was never that scared of Voldemort. He just wasn’t weird enough to be really terrifying….I’m definitely not a horror writer, but horror always seems to creep into my work.”
I appreciated Grossman’s candor in acknowledging that writing a book about a group of young people who discover a secret school for magic is, now and forever, fraught with HP comparison. But I think what distinguishes his novels from Rowling’s – and I guess this is the answer to my other question, too, about what makes Grossman an adult writer – is exactly what he pinpointed: they’re scary. I think it’s that aspect, rather than the swearing and drinking and sex that his characters engage in (because, hello, have you read any YA lately? RACY.) that situates them in the Literature, rather than the Children’s section of the book store.
Grossman is just such a good storyteller. His voice is almost, dare I say…magical. I felt myself falling under the spell of geekdom with every word.
I bought the book. I’m halfway through. It’s great.
Morgan Macgregor is a reader and blogger living in Los Angeles. She likes contemporary American fiction and talking about it. Probably because she’s Canadian.