Lev Grossman’s The Magicians really needs to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. But before I explain that, I have to give an uncharacteristic warning for my booklog: I’m going to spoil a plot twist that happens halfway through the book, because I simply can’t talk about this at all without doing so. As it happens, I think this is a twist that’s better spoiled, as it doesn’t work at all coming out of nowhere, but if you don’t want to be spoiled, quit reading now.
Still here? Okay, so: For the first 60% of the book, The Magicians is essentially Harry Potter for adults — there’s a high school kid who is unhappy with his life, and then he is invited to study at a Magical College, and we follow his academic career for the next four years, as he makes friends, learns things, grows up, &c. Unlike Potter, this is set in America, and the kids are older (so drink and have sex and so forth), but it’s clearly a variation on a theme. This portion of the book is maybe a bit aimless (there’s no Voldemort to focus the plot), but is enjoyable enough.
And then everyone graduates, and the book jumps tracks, and decides to instead become a grown-up version of Narnia. Literally. The characters do an interdimensional jump to the magical land of Fillory, which is basically Narnia with the serial numbers filed off, down to the part where a bunch of English schoolchildren went there back in the '20s after finding a portal in the back of a grandfather clock, and ended up being Kings and Queens after helping the high-handed Ram God defeat the evil lady.
The switch from college to Narnia is awkward enough on its own, but what makes it doubly discordant is that, just as we have Narnia novels, they have Fillory novels in the “real world” of the book, and those have been referred to throughout the college portion in a way that makes them seem thematically important in underlining things about magic and growing up and whatever else. And they’re so clearly the Narnia books that it feels like they’re supposed to be referring to the actual Narnia books and just changed details to avoid copyright problems. So to have them move from background thematic element to actual foreground plot element is just jarring. It’d be like if Kavalier and Clay had suddenly become actual real-world superheroes halfway through that book.
Even worse, that shift in plot also coincides with the main character becoming a whiny, mopey, unlikeable asshole. I mean, he always had a bit of the mope and the ass about him, but in the earlier parts, they were more subdued and also seemed to fit in with the whole growing/maturing theme. But just as the book is getting ready to dump its new plot on us, it amps the assholery up to 11 and makes the protagonist completely unsympathetic, to the point where you wonder why this little jerk is the protagonist, and not somebody more interesting.
The unfortunate result is a book whose first half was reasonably enjoyable, but whose back half involves people I don’t like doing things I don’t care about. I can’t really recommend it.