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Is it Harry Potter goes to college, or is it The Secret History set at Hogwarts? Hard to say, but either way The Magicians is a pretty good read. There are elements that one expects (e.g., the kid who's always been "different" finding out he can do magic). There are bits that are obvious homages to favorites of the genre, but because they're (usually) explicitly identified as such, they don't (usually) feel derivative. After all, if a kid really did suddenly find out he or she was magic, they could hardly not relate their experiences to Narnia and Tolkien and Rowling and the other classics.

And there's certainly enough original stuff -- the Fourth Years' experience at Brakebills South, for example: elegant and terrifying at the same time. The kids sleep together and stay up all night and smoke pot and try dangerous stupid things and make colossally bad choices and skive off studying in favor of getting drunk and do all the other things college-age kids do, but they also dig a lot deeper into some elemental questions of magic that the Harry Potter books, for all their charm, simply ignore.

Don't get me wrong, I love the HP books. But in a lot of ways they give magic itself short shrift: they never talk about where it comes from, rarely about how it works, and they pretty much bypass the question of morality other than that murder and coercion are Bad (e.g. Unforgiveable curses and Horcruxes). The Magicians goes several steps better, exploring where magic originates, what is or isn't supposed to be done with it. For example, in the middle part of the book the kids have graduated from Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy and are living in a flat in New York City:

As the sun set over the Hudson, and sunbeams tinted a delicate rose by their passage through the atmosphere over New Jersey lanced through the apartment's common room, and Eliot handed around Lillet cocktails (Lillet and champagne layered over a velvet hammer of vodka) in chilled martini glasses, and Quentin served miniature sweet-and-sour lobster rolls, everybody suddenly seemed -- or maybe they were -- wise and funny and good-looking...

"Magic," Richard announced slowly, flushed, "is the tools. Of the Maker." He almost never drank, and two glasses of viognier had put him well over his limit..."There's no other way of looking at it. We are dealing with a scenario where there is a Person who built the house, and then He left." He rapped the table with one hand to celebrate this triumph of reason. "And when He left, He left His tools lying around in the garage. Then we found them, and we picked them up, and we started making guesses about how they work. Now we're learning to use them. And that's magic."

"There are so many things wrong with that I don't even know where to start," Quentin heard himself say..."First of all, there's a huge scale problem. Nobody's building universes here. We're not even building galaxies or solar systems or planets. You need cranes and bulldozers to build a house. If there is a 'Maker,' which frankly I don't see much evidence for, that's what He had. What we've got are hand tools. Black and Decker."

"...Maybe we're just not" -- [Richard] searched in his wine glass for the right metaphor -- "we're not plugging our tools into the right socket. Maybe there's a much bigger socket."

"I think if you're talking about electricity," Alice put in, "you have to talk about where energy comes from."

See? They don't solve the question, but at least they ask it.

And although Fillory is clearly a parallel to Narnia, it's handled completely differently, among other things making the point that other worlds have their own lives to live, as it were, they aren't there simply so we can muck about with them and have adventures. In some ways, The Magicians is like a rebuttal of books that focus on magical adventures rather than fully exploring magic itself, its ethics and dangers and consequences and so on.

My biggest problem with the book was that Quentin never seems to resolve his issues; he keeps having epiphanies but then each time realizing it wasn't epiphanious (??) enough and getting angry and discontented again. As for the ending -- well, I predict that Quentin will yet again find a reason not to be happy with who or where he is.

Still, all things considered, I give it two thumbs up. Definitely nothing else like it out there.

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