I just finished Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, and can we discuss briefly how unbelievably heavy-handed the “tribute” to Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia is? Just a warning, if you’ve never read either of those series or this book there’s a decent chance this post will make precisely no sense, but I have to get this off my chest cause it’s just bugging me.
First of all, let me say that the book is, mechanically, perfectly fine. It’s an interesting read, the English – while not amazing – is definitely good enough to be published, and the characters and story are interesting enough to get you through. Five-star literature this is not, but it’s also not what I want from every book I read. In that vein, it’s completely satisfying. If you haven’t ever read the book and you’re planning on it, you should probably skip my minor bitching below because hello spoilers.
So while the story does have it’s own flavor, I can sum it up as half Harry Potter half Narnia with bits and pieces of The Secret History* thrown in for good measure. And by “I can sum it up as” I mean I read through the book picking out exactly where half of the ideas in the novel come from. The magical school, Brakebills, is Hogwarts (almost everything, except the ages) with a hefty does of Bennington College thrown in (read: the students drink a lot, have a lot of dinner parties, are cliquey, and have a lot of sex). The curriculum is magic (Hogwarts) with students divided into Disciplines (think Potter Houses, but with the exclusivity and aloofness of the Classics students at Bennington), and there’s even a magical game which, while not really seeming to resemble Quidditch in rules, just screams “Hello, I am a Quidditch ripoff” to me because it’s painfully shoehorned into the story. For fuck’s sake, there’s even an international magic tournament in the fourth year of the main character’s schooling. Luckily the Hogwarts copy ends about halfway through the book, but it gets better! After the characters leave
Hogwarts Brakebills, they wind up visiting a magical land called Fillory which is so deeply, exactly Narnia that I can’t really call it homage, parody or reference.
Fillory is a book series that’s frequently mentioned in The Magicians. To simplify my examples of how fucking close Fillory is to Narnia, I’m going to put the Narnian parallels in parentheses as I outline the whole thing. It’s a series of five childrens’ books about four kids, the Chatwins (Pevensies), who find the land of Fillory (Narnia) by entering a grandfather clock (wardrobe) in an old house belonging to their grandfather (Diggory Kirke), whom they’re staying with because their father is involved in the War and their mother is in an asylum (their parents think they’re safer in the country during German air raids). They become kings and queens in Fillory – because only children from Earth can rule (just re-read that part of the sentence pretending Fillory is replaced with Narnia) – by stopping the Watcherwoman (White Witch) from freezing time so that it’s always a gray day in November (always winter but never Christmas). They’re eventually kicked out by the anthropomorphic ram gods Ember and Umber (anthropomorphic lion god Aslan), but return several times to have adventures. They even track a beast that supposedly can grant any wish, a la the White Stag at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. For fuck’s sake, one of the Chatwin kids has an ambiguous disappearance in Fillory and it’s referenced occasionally as “the problem of Martin,” much like how some people in the real world (you know – real life, not in books) occasionally reference Susan’s absence from The Last Battle as “the problem of Susan.”**
Argh. There are so freaking many heavy-handed references to Narnia I can’t even go on. Done. Anyway, the kids from the magic school visit Narnia, I mean Fillory, and nothing goes right. Then the book ends.
Anyway, suffice to say that while I do understand fully that it’s supposed to reference all the above books, it’s just too god-damned over the top to be taken seriously. I like clever references to other books that the author considers a big influence, but this was too, too much. So many things seemed added to the story specifically to be “clever” and weren’t. I finally lost my temper with the book when they went to the Neitherworlds, or as those of us who have read Narnia refer to it, The Wood Between the Worlds.***
So yeah, it’s an okay read if you’re not familiar with any of the books listed, but if you are it can just get effing tiring. I can almost forgive the Hogwarts stuff because Rowling is certainly not the first person to have the incredibly original idea of magic school, but the Narnia stuff was just unbelievable.
Does anyone out there have an opinion on this that I might be missing? Please don’t tell me it’s supposed to be a tribute, or reference or whatever – as I’ve noted I got that, but I think it went way to damn far.
*This book is amazing and I highly recommend it.
**Okay, so maybe only really hardcore Narnia fans refer to it as the problem of Susan. Whatever, it’s still a thing.
***They travel there using buttons. There’s even a motherfucking “we’re guinea pigs!” reference, not unlike Uncle Kirke’s ring experiment in The Magician’s Nephew, argh argh argh.