Lev Grossman’s Magicians Series

Like co-blogger Eugene Volokh, I read and liked Lev Grossman’s Magicians series. It has interesting ideas and strong characterization. Some have compared the series to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book, because part of it is set at a school for aspiring wizards. The real parallel, however, is with C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books. Much of the plot is taken up with the protagonists’ efforts to find a Narnia-like parallel world called Fillory. Grossman addresses the question of what would happen if some of the humans entering Narnia were more willing to abuse their power and refused to go home to Earth after completing their quests. Grossman weaves an interesting and fine line between building on Lewis’ vision and critiquing it. He is certainly superior to Lewis in terms of character development and style, though his work is necessarily less original because partly derivative of its predecessor. Overall, Grossman’s series is a fine addition to the new trend of darker, grittier fantasy novels which includes the work of George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, and others. On balance, I would actually say that Grossman is actually less pessimistic than some of these other writers.

I do have a few reservations about the series. The principal one is that Grossman, like Suzanne Collins, is often weak on world-building. Like the Harry Potter series, Grossman’s world features a hidden society of magicians who wield enormous power yet are unknown to normal humans, whose history they have little effect on. In the Potter series, however, there is a very powerful wizard government that prevents wizards from revealing their powers to Muggles and trying to dominate the world. The magical authorities in Grossman’s world are a lot weaker. It therefore strains credulity to believe that powerful sorcerers have been around for centuries, yet have never revealed themselves to normal humans, seized political power, or had any impact on history. Grossman’s Narnia analogue is also poorly developed and there is little sense of how this society functions and why we should care about it. World-building was also a relative weakness of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, and it’s possible that the thin development of Fillory is an intentional commentary on Lewis’ original (though Fillory is actually even less well developed than Narnia was).

Other reviewers have also commented negatively on the obnoxious and unsympathetic personalities of most of the protagonists. This bothers me less, as their stories are still interesting. Nonetheless, until late in the first book, the problems faced by the protagonists seem so trivial compared to the enormous privileges they derive from their status as magicians that it’s hard to enter into their concerns as much as the author intends us to do. This is much less of a problem in the last part of the first book and in the second, as the characters mature somewhat and start to face more serious issues.

Overall, I think it’s a very good fantasy series, but not quite a great one.

UPDATE: Sci Fi/Fantasy critic Abigail Nussbaum has a more negative take on the first book here. I agree with some of her points, but by no means all.