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The Magicians: Harry Potter with Sex and Drugs

Ever wondered why Harry Potter remained a virgin throughout high school?  Or at least why Rowling barely discussed her characters’ sex lives?  I mean, please, did Rowling really expect us to believe that the entire wizarding community was so gosh-darn moral?  In The Magicians, Lev Grossman disenchants the universe Rowling created for us and replaces it with his own where drugs and sex are prevalent. This world is a dark one where magic isn’t produced with a wand and a flick of the wrist, but with arduous studying and hours of work. In this world the characters are hauntingly real, with problems and quirks like our own, but amplified by magic. It is a compelling story about a high school graduate’s search for happiness, and his inability to find it even after attending his own personal Hogwarts.

This book was written for us college students who, growing up reading Harry Potter and Narnia, often pretended knitting needles were magic wands, and jumping on broomsticks, hoped they would fly. The novel’s style is simple and sweet, avoiding the purposeful confusion prevalent in other postmodern literature.  However, I don’t mean to suggest that the style lacks sophistication. Its simplicity is a direct nod to young adult fantasy literature. The book’s adult themes, though, preclude its consideration as just another young adult novel. Instead, we might think of it as a young adult novel for adults who miss the genre and want to see it grow and develop with more thoughtful additions.

Grossman does a fantastic job with the beginning of this story, setting the dark and nearly absurd tone that will carry the rest of the novel. Main character Quentin is a genius, applying to Ivy League schools. He arrives to a Yale interview with his two best friends, Julia and James, only to discover the interviewer’s death. One of the paramedics who comes to pick up the body hands him a book titled The Magicians and sends him on his way. A piece of paper, essentially a much thinner version of Hagrid, escapes the pages of the book and Quentin chases it into an alleyway where he is magically transported to Brakebills school of magic and tested to determine his worth.

We see from the offset that Quentin is very passive and has little control of his life. He goes with the flow, letting life bring all of its wonders to him, only to decide he isn’t happy with them and needs more. In this way Quentin is a believably human character, and heavily contrasted to Harry Potter. Harry Potter is a more Romantic character, actively pursuing his goals and trying to better his world, while Quentin, and the rest of the characters in The Magicians for that matter, aren’t really driven to save the world. The characters’ primary goal is to avoid the boredom that comes with having everything handed to them. This ironically leads them to the traumatic events later in the novel.

Very explicit references throughout the book not only invite the comparison to Harry Potter, but also encourage it. This book is chock-full of allusions. Even the cover art is an allusion to The Wood Between the Worlds from The Magician’s Nephew. The characters themselves are also very aware of the genre they’re written into. They reference Harry Potter many times as well as Tolkien. This awareness absurdly contextualizes the book. What’s possibly more amazing is how casually these comments are made. The characters’ attitudes towards the genre, and by extension their own lives in their own fantasy world, are frivolous and naïve. Despite the fact that they are messing with forces they clearly don’t understand, they remain resolutely casual even in the direst of straits, in contrast with much of the genre.

Though Grossman’s characters’ attitudes are more flippant towards magic in the beginning of the book, we see that as events unfold, they become more and more disillusioned. Yet they cannot let go of their magic, because it’s what provided them their happiness for so long. And so an internal contradiction develops between their disillusionment and their fear of leaving a world that, though dark, still made them happy. We directly witness Quentin’s own internal contradiction play out in the final chapters of this book.

So what makes this book so compelling? Is it the disillusionment of the most popular English fantasy novels? Is it the interaction between very real humans and very real magic? Or is it the addition of sex and drugs to an otherwise Hogwarts-esque environment?  I suppose you’ll have to read it and determine what does it for you.

A New York Times Bestseller, The Magicians is available at for 15.25. The sequel, The Magician King, was released this past August, and is available for $16.43 at