I recently finished Lev Grossman’s fantasy series, The Magicians.
For better or for worse this series brought something new to the fantasy genre, something that, however awesome they are, most previous fantasies lack: entirely realistic characters.
However, you cannot unequivocally say this is a good thing.
The characters of The Magicians are very different from the familiar ‘heroic’ types you find in LOTR, Harry Potter, Conan, The Name of the Wind, etc, or even the anti-heroes filling Joe Abercrombie’s and R.R. Martin’s grim-dark novels. No, Grossman crafts more realistic characters, the sort of real-world individuals we all know and hate. Quentin and his cohorts are self-absorbed, privileged, snotty, obsessed with booze and sex, and don’t seem to genuinely care about any other human beings. Basically, they are like most teenagers and twenty-something’s currently logging time in our world.
This technique, though, makes it easy for us to suspend disbelief and believe that these are real people. Their interactions with each other and especially with adults are all convincing to the point of non-fiction. From his solid prose you can tell Grossman knew what he was doing in breaking this cardinal rule of fiction writing. You don’t make unlikeable characters—and you especially don’t make all your characters despicable.
But it is this very element that makes everything else more believable. Grossman took a huge risk here, but he knew what he was doing. And I think it paid off.
This wasn’t his only risk in The Magicians. Grossman also decided to do away with the ancient—and perhaps best-loved—fantasy trope: a great villain. You won’t find a straight up villain in any of the three books. Sure, there’s the mysterious Beast in the first one. But unlike traditional villains, the Beast is not behind most of the events in the book. And he only has two scenes, one early on and then we don’t see him for a long time, and his actions in this scene carry little weight or influence.
The second book, The Magician King, features the return of the old gods, who are trying to take their magic back (because humans are too immature to handle it properly. Good for them). But we only see one of these old gods, once, and later he is swiftly and easily dispatched by the MC sticking some keys into the air and turning them in the most anticlimactic finale since Breaking Dawn.
In the third book, The Magician’s Land, there really isn’t any true villain at all. A quasi-antagonist exists in a talking bird. But that’s soon dealt with.
The world-building is not extensive. Grossman’s Neitherlands is clearly C.S. Lewis’ Woods Between the Worlds (which was itself taken from William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End). At first I thought he was blatantly ripping off Lewis; in the chronologically first Narnia book, The Magician’s Nephew, the MC is transported—using a magic ring, not unlike what Penny uses—to a world between worlds, referred to as the Wood Between the Worlds. Here one can enter ponds—much like the fountains of water in the Neitherlands—and be transported to other worlds.
And Fillory is clearly Narnia in all but name. You have a huge talking animal/god, human kids who traveled there and became its kings and queens (the Pevensie’s anyone?), talking critters, a vaguely described foreign army trying to take over and of course the requisite witch.
But Grossman actually wanted to include the Wood Between the World as a direct homage to Lewis, and to connect all the worlds, including Narnia—which would’ve been righteously cool. But his publishing lawyers wouldn’t let him.
The point is that every writing decision Grossman made was clearly intentional. By making Fillory a stand in for Narnia, he recreates a familiar world, one he knew his readers had enjoyed visiting as youngsters. All of this serves to draw us in and forget (or at least forgive) his creation of vile characters. (Julia is quite possibly an even worse protagonist than Bella Swan).
He effectively made his characters more real than interesting, something fantasists just don’t do—ever. We are accustomed to our fantasies being peopled by legendary heroes and braver than brave protagonists, super evil villains. With The Magicians we are given something wholly new and bold, and though it might’ve made for a horrible series, in Grossman’s brilliant hands it comes off as enthralling.
At least, I found the books to be so. I hated them, but I couldn’t put them down. You really lose yourself in the world(s) Grossman has created, even if they are not nearly as original or as epic or cool as countless others that have come before. Why then? How could I enjoy what I did not like?
Because Lev Grossman knows how to write, and he knows how to create something new. For that I admire him and his work. His stories have stuck with me, made me think about fantasy and reality in a new light. And that, I think, is the most a writer can hope to achieve by way of his readers. Perhaps we can learn a lesson from Grossman and his Magicians: Be bold in your writing. Take chances. Shake things up.
He makes some interesting points in a video where he describes his influences and reasons. You might want to check it out, here.