I like the Harry Potter novels. Even if the first five books are a bit too much like five extended episodes of Scooby-doo. You know- there’s a pattern to all of them: Harry goes to Hogwarts, has the customary banquet in which the teacher wear their eccentric college robes. Strange things happen and things are not as they seem. Harry and his friends explore, there’s a battle and people are put at risk, the evil is vanquished, and then there’s another banquet. Add Draco, Crabbe and Goyle. Things do turn out for the better during the last two books, in which all sorts of people die and Harry and his friend at last leave the fictionally confining halls of Hogwarts. I like Harry Potter. My kids adore Harry Potter.
But Lev Grossman’s books, The Magicians and the Magician King, are better.
It’s unfair to say this. Grossman stole from JK Rowling with all the vim and vigour of a plundering pirate who happens to be classically educated writer of far greater talent. It’s about a school for magicians called Brakebills, in which eccentric genius kids practice magic in all its guises (including an astonishing test of physical magic that involves turning into a goose and flying across the world), in which there are cliques of friends who fall in love with each other and do their best to solve its mysteries. The school is covered in protective, concealing spells; there are portals that whisk people around the world; the students practice arcane little games; there are corresponding magic schools around the world.
But these kids fall in love, get drunk, and have sex. They even - horror upon horrors - use the internet. Rowling admirers often reference the absence of technology in her books - there are no computers or internet but only the world of magic and that of the poor muggles, who only have cars and telephones. In the Grossman books, people use smartphones and wikipedia and the magic is still there, and the story is the richer for it. Magic is given a far richer and more scientific basis, and Grossman has somehow woven it into a mythology that is respectful of its theft victims while staying original; magic here is painted as something arduously, impossibly technical, available only to people with the memory, the pure bloody-mindedness, to memorize the infintesimally delicate arrays of finger movements, language, and intonations that form real magic. Grossman makes it seem possible.
Then there is the writing. Here is a perfect example: Julia is teaching herself magic because she couldn’t get into Brakebills. She performs her first spell from a file she found in a dusty forgotten corner of the internet.
What this image was, once she had zipped and decoded it, was a scan of a handwritten document. A couplet—two lines of words in a language she didn’t recognize, transcribed phonetically. Above each syllable was a musical staff indicating rhythm and (in a couple of cases) intonation. Below it was a drawing of a human hand performing a gesture. There was no indication of what the document was, no title or explanation. But it was interesting. It had a purposeful quality, draftsmanlike and precise. It didn’t look like an art project, or a joke. Too much work, and not enough funny.
She practiced them separately first. Thank God for ten years of oboe lessons, on the strength of which she could sight-sing. The words were simple, but the hand positions were murder. Halfway through she went back to thinking it was a joke, but she was too stubborn to quit. She would have even then, but as an experiment she tried the first few syllables, and she discovered that something was different about this one. It made her fingertips feel hot. They buzzed like she’d touched a battery. The air resisted her, as if it had become slightly viscous. Something stirred in her chest that had never stirred there before. It had been sleeping her whole life, and now somehow, by doing this, she had poked it, and it stirred.
Throughout Grossman’s books, there is a constant beautiful but bemused quality, as if he begs the reader not to take the subject matter too seriously. After all, beneath the magic, people are just people and magic changed nothing.
The library was still plagued by outbreaks of flying books—three weeks ago a whole flock of Far Eastern atlases had taken wing, terrifyingly broad, muscular volumes like albatrosses, and wrecked the circulation area, sending students crawling under tables. The books actually found their way out through the front door and roosted in a tree by the welters board, from which they raucously heckled passersby in a babel of languages until they got rained on and dragged themselves sulkily back to the stacks, where they were being aggressively rebound.
Like I said before, I like Harry Potter. Rowling is talented and I credit her for inventing the genre of Adventurous Student Magician. But students are young adults, and they experiment, get in trouble, and make the most regrettable mistakes. They also grow up, and occupy a strange nether region that is neither childhood and adulthood. Harry was a child all the way through, despite some of Rowling’s hints of Harry's shouty independence. In the and, marriage and family happened offstage, as if Harry’s entrance into adulthood might have marred the mystery of Hogwarts. Lev Grossman has combined puberty, maturity, technology (but this book isn’t steampunk), magic, and misbehavior, and yet still added the magical world of Fillory over it all.
If Harry has made Rowling a billionaire, may these two books, far better than the Potter books, please make Lev Grossman at least a millionaire? It would be somewhat fair.