The Magicians. By Lev Grossman. Plume. $16.
The Magician King. By Lev Grossman. Viking. $26.95.
Shadowcry. By Jenna Burtenshaw. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
There is magic post-Potter. Or, more accurately, post-Lewis. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (originally published in 2009 and now available in paperback) and its set-five-years-later sequel, The Magician King, are based loosely (and sometimes not so loosely) on C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and also will remind readers frequently of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. But this is grown-up Potter and dismal rather than religiously uplifting Lewis. From the start, when Brooklyn teenager Quentin Coldwater takes a very peculiar test for college admission, Grossman shows that he is not writing for young readers or for those inclined to unquestioning acceptance of orthodox organized religion. “The test gave him a passage from The Tempest, then asked him to make up a fake language, and then translate the Shakespeare into the made-up language. He was then asked questions about the grammar and orthography of his made-up language, and then – honestly, what was the point? – questions about the made-up geography and culture and society of the made-up country where his made-up language was so fluently spoken. Then he had to translate the original passage from the fake language back into English, paying particular attention to any resulting distortions in grammar, word choice, and meaning.” This is not a book for the non-intellectual, nor one for the faint of heart.
There is certainly some humor here, in individual scenes as well as in the underlying five-book series called Fillory and Further that lures Quentin into magical thinking in the first place and that turns out to be about a real land, although the place is not at all what Quentin thought it would be. An early scene in The Magicians shows the sort of humor that Grossman offers, as Quentin and fellow student Eliot share a smoke: “Quentin accepted the cigarette. He was in unfamiliar territory here. He’d handled cigarettes before – they were common props in close-up magic – but he’d never actually put one in his mouth. He made the cigarette vanish – a basic thumb palm – then snapped his fingers to bring it back. ‘I said smoke it, not fondle it,’ Eliot said curtly. …Quentin leaned in and inhaled. It felt like his lungs had been crumpled up and hen incinerated. He coughed for five solid minutes without stopping. Eliot laughed so hard he had to sit down. Quentin’s face was slick with tears. He forced himself to take another drag and threw up into a hedge.”
The Magicians is about Quentin’s education at Brakebills, his discovery of the difference between stage magic (such as palming cigarettes) and real magic, and his far more significant discovery that Fillory is real but that its wonders (which range from moving trees with clock faces to giant animals fighting with medieval weapons) are more sinister than naïvely adventurous. The Fillory stories’ creation (within Quentin’s world) in Britain in the 1930s makes the connection with Narnia clear, as do a number of events in The Magicians itself; and Brakebills certainly resembles Rowling’s Hogwarts in many ways – but it is a much darker place, not only in itself but also in what is taught and how it is taught (Quentin’s thought that one teacher “is batshit insane” seems about right). Eventually making his way through Brakebills, Quentin emerges not triumphant but burdened – and the nature of those burdens becomes more fully clear in The Magician King. After a first chapter that strongly echoes The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Grossman’s new book becomes a sort of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, as Quentin and his friend Julia (a self-taught magician who had failed the Brakebills entrance exam) go on a quest together, aboard a magical ship, to the outer limits of Fillory. The adventure here has the characters partly in Fillory, partly in Massachusetts (at Quentin’s parents’ house) – just as the Lewis adventures alternate between Britain and Narnia. But there is pervasive darkness in Grossman’s writing that is beyond anything in Lewis, as if 21st-century secular cynicism has invaded and pervaded the naïve religiosity that is the foundation of the Narnia books. It would be a mistake to regard The Magicians and The Magician King as an answer to or expansion of the work of Lewis or Rowling (or, for that matter, T.H. White, whose writing is also echoed from time to time). Rather, the books are reinterpretations of the magical lore and magical thinking that have now become pervasive and that tend to carry with them the constant scent of uplift, of ultimate good-against-evil confrontation in which good will ultimately (after many difficulties) prevail. The impression left by Grossman is that the whole good-and-evil thing is more slippery than other authors indicate, and that the eventual triumph of one over the other is by no means assured; nor is there any certainty, if there is to be victory, of what it will consist. There is plenty of adventure in Grossman’s books, but above all they are books that make readers think, consider, and reconsider the whole field of magical fantasy, within which they lie at best uneasily. It takes time to read and absorb these books – they are so packed with ideas and plot points that skimming is well-nigh impossible – but it is time that is very well spent indeed.
A much more conventional book that is a more straightforward fantasy with roots in the past, Shadowcry gets a (+++) rating for the quality of its writing and pacing, if not for its largely unexceptional plot and largely nonexistent characterizations. Jenna Burtenshaw is merely the latest of a slew of writers to look to the obvious elements of dark fantasy for a coming-of-age tale. Shadowcry centers on Kate Winters, a 15-year-old girl who discovers she is one of the Skilled when she brings a dead blackbird back to life. Her magical ability makes Kate the target of thugs who kidnap people and conscript them into the army for a war that is being waged just as a crucial time approaches: the Night of Souls, when the barrier between living and dead is at its thinnest. Kate’s ability means she can cross between life and death – and learn the secrets of an ancient book called Wintercraft. She is captured and brought to a city filled with secrets of its own: tunnels, underground villages and betrayals galore. This is one of those books in which a character declaims at length about the land’s history and the start of the current war, ostensibly to inform Kate but transparently to give the reader background that would not otherwise come out in the rather ordinary plotting. The dialogue is full of familiar portentousness: “The woman smiled kindly. ‘If you are who we think you are, then it has been many years since we last met,’ she said. Perhaps if we introduce ourselves, you will understand why we are here.’” Kate must come to the full fruition of her powers in order to save herself and those who help her, including a killer who proves a most valuable ally. As for the evil ones – they are evil for its own sake: “Kate could feel something dark inside that woman. She did not care about Albion or anything else. She enjoyed the destruction and uncertainty of endless war. She wanted to damage people. She wanted to see them suffer, using her position on the High Council to wield the ultimate power of life and death.” This simplistic presentation is much more typical of modern fantasy than is the far more nuanced and complex approach of The Magicians and The Magician King. Indeed, even Rowling’s books are straightforward in this regard, with the exception of a single character, Snape. So the fact that Shadowcry follows a formula is no surprise – and it does follow that formula well enough to be a good read for anyone content to live through the same experience offered by many other modern fantasy novels. It also ends in a way that makes a sequel possible, and readers who enjoy the book will hope that one is forthcoming.