Some years ago my husband was reading a book he’d bought on the basis of a good review. He was sitting in his chair chuckling, and occasionally he would say, “You have to read this!” and then “I mean it, you’ve really got to read this!”
“OK, dear,” I said, and back to my own book.
Then I did. The book was The Magicians by Lev Grossman. After I finished it I was hanging out with my sister and she said something like, “Oh, my book club read the greatest book!” and I answered, “I just read the greatest book, too!” And it turned out to be one and the same.
The Magicians has now morphed into a trilogy, the final episode published last month, and it’s one that I think every parent who was jealous of their kids for having Harry Potter just has to read. Remember how reading Harry Potter with your kids (or in my case, listening to the wonderful audiobooks) made you wistful for how the Narnia series really didn’t cut it once you put them side-by-side? Harry Potter let kids be real kids. They did real stuff that was not in the least allegorical. They lived in a world that was tactile and dirty and complex.
All we got as kids was weak Christian allegory. (Apologies if you still love Narnia, but reading it as an adult killed all my affection for it!)
The disappointing thing about Harry Potter, from the adult point of view, is that because it’s a series for kids, it does have to stay within the kids’ world experiences. There are no great revelations, no deep learning that happens in that series. The kids have adventures and eventually they overcome the evil.
The end happily ever after et cetera.
The Magicians is Harry Potter for grown-ups. It opens when our “hero” (rather less heroic than Harry, even) stumbles his way into a college for magicians. He doesn’t even know that magic exists. He’s never done anything the least bit magical, yet they’ve been watching him and they want him. Why?
In Harry Potter, that question gets answered, but Grossman’s books are for grown-ups. Questions don’t get answered; they just balloon and get overwhelming, then subside and let you get on with your life. Quentin, Grossman’s protagonist, stumbles through young adult life in an endearing and somewhat scary way. Quentin’s a thinker, and he lets you know why he makes the decisions he makes, but unlike in a children’s novel, it doesn’t all come together to make sense. It ends, but the ending is just the beginning of the rest of his life.
These are not books for kids, or even your teenagers. In fact, don’t let your teens read these books. They’re yours. I mean it. I think you have to have lived long enough to realize that you don’t really know what the hell you’re doing in life in order to appreciate these books.
I love this piece by Grossman on how he found himself as a writer. I think Grossman does a great job of summing up why his books are so great to read:
“Fantasy is sometimes dismissed as childish, or escapist, but I take what I am doing very, very seriously. For me fantasy isn’t about escaping from reality, it’s about re-encountering the challenges of the real world, but externalized and transformed. It’s an emotionally raw genre — it forces you to lay yourself open on the page. It doesn’t traffic in ironies and caveats. When you cast a spell you can’t be kidding, you have to mean it.”
It’s clear that Lev Grossman means it. Go read these books. Ignore your children for a while. Really. And don’t let them read over your shoulder, as my 11-year-old attempted to do last night. She could see I had a good read, and she was jealous.
Let them be jealous. Let them have Harry.
We have Quentin.