This was my second read of The Magicians, and I approached it with a little trepidation, wondering if I would hold it in the same esteem I did on my first read several years ago. If anything, it has risen in my estimation. It’s not only a thoughtful deconstruction of escapist fantasy, it’s also one of the best depictions of depression I’ve ever read. Let’s tackle those points in order.
I think most people, even those who didn’t go on to love fantasy as adults, grew up on some form of escapist fantasy. For my generation it was Narnia, and I remember disregarding Lewis’s advice and hopping into the wardrobe as a small child just to make sure it wasn’t back there. For the younger generation it’s Harry Potter, probably hanging onto lingering hopes of a late acceptance to Hogwarts. There were plenty of less memorable entries in this field too, and they all had one thing in common: A child who doesn’t quite fit the world around them in the way that most intelligent, bookish children don’t quite fit the world around them, who in suddenly finding that they are the chosen one who gets to rule the magical land or go to the magical school, also gets their problems solved. Magic brings them friends who really get them. Magic somewhat makes up for the loss of a family or the existence of a family who doesn’t really love or understand them by bringing them a community that embraces who they truly are. Magic makes them fit without having to change, at least not in ways that require them to have to take the real world as it is and find a way to belong happily in it anyway.
Quentin Coldwater, our unlikeable protagonist, gets that chosen one fantasy in his acceptance to Brakebills and the discovery that the magic he’s always longed for is real. And it doesn’t fix things. Magic, it turns out, is like anything else in life: You won’t get joy out of it if you don’t put some in, if you don’t tough out the hard and tiring and boring parts for love of the discipline, and it isn’t going to make the problems that stemmed from you in the first place simply disappear. People are still people, and ones with magic aren’t any more accepting or loving or tolerant or capable of filling the holes in your soul. Life is still a big confusing mess, and you still have to decide what your purpose is and make it happen, not just sit back and wait for magic to hand one to you.
And it can be hard to be in Quentin’s head as he struggles with this, and on the cusp of realisation, often seizes onto the next thing that he thinks will hand him a miraculous bundle of happiness: Alice! Fillory! But in the midst of all the fantasy trappings, that’s what makes this book so damn real, because that’s how depression works. In fiction it often doesn’t, because people want to see characters grow along a steady trajectory, so they hit rock bottom, and then get a little better, and a little better, until eventually they’re standing in a good place. But in life? You get a little better, and then a little better, and then you self-sabotage all of your good work and end up in a worse place than you were to start with, and then you get a lot better, but only because you’ve grabbed onto a relationship/job/other temporary fix that won’t actually yield long-term improvement, and then you re-acquaint yourself with rock bottom, and then you get a little better…
And as someone approaching their 20th year of that journey with depression, I can say that yes, it can make us pretty damn unlikeable at times — particularly when you’re still a kid like Quentin and trying to figure out who you even are with this crushing weight on top of you. In addition, one of the ways that Quentin copes is by overachieving, which is not my particular thing but is something I recognise from friends’ experiences, and so he’s one of the smartest people in his mundane school and is preparing for an Ivy League education when Brakebills derails him. Suddenly he has to get used to the fact that he is, if anything, below-average in the community he’s now a part of — he came very close to not even getting into Brakebills, and it’s repeatedly shown how much some of his peers like Alice and Penny outclass him. It’s probably not dissimilar from the experiences of a lot of kids who are the best in their provincial areas and have to adapt to being merely part of the crowd at an Ivy, but when academic accomplishment has been pretty much your sole coping strategy for depression, it’s going to make the kind of impact we see here.
Despite the fact that viewing it through Quentin’s eyes can be a dampener, there’s still something bewitching about the Brakebills experience. While Quentin is in his final year and getting impatient to stretch his wings, I already felt strangely mournful for the place. It’s no Hogwarts, but you know that one day Q will regret not making the most of the years he had there, although maybe he can still grow enough as a person to appreciate all the subtle joys that were strung throughout this confusing and tumultuous time of his life.
That’s not to say that Quentin doesn’t experience any growth, although it’s not until the very end that he finally breaks through a barrier of realisation without backsliding. But there’s much better payoff in that regard to be found in the next two volumes of the trilogy, as well as in highlighting how privileged Quentin’s experience was compared to that of characters like Julia, whom we see just a little of in The Magicians. It might seem odd to call such a depressed character privileged, but many of us enjoy privileges in society (like that of being white, or male, or Christian, or whatever our society has deemed ‘default’) that don’t necessarily go hand in hand with a happy existence, and the fact that Quentin has so little self-awareness of all the things he’s benefitted from is a justifiable source of anger at him — one in which Alice speaks for the reader as she finally snaps at him for not really looking at his perfect life, even as she understands better than most, after seeing her family collapse, how someone like Quentin can get lost inside themselves.
By now we’re on the third season of the television show, which didn’t exist when I last read this book, and it’s a very good adaptation which has adjusted some of my perspectives on the novels. Firstly, the show does a better job of emphasising that Quentin’s emotional state is an actual medical condition, and medical conditions require treatment. It also struck me how very, very white The Magicians is this time around — there isn’t a single person of colour among the novel’s main characters, and the show has done such a brilliant job of diversifying the cast with its excellent choices of actors for Dean Fogg, Penny, Julia, and Janet (renamed Margo in the show) that I found myself substituting them in my mind’s eye, despite Grossman’s descriptions, to make my mental images less painfully uniform. Finally, the Beast is so very much more intimidating on the show, both visually (obscuring your face with a cloud of moths has a bit more impact than hiding it behind a tree branch) and in action, that the book version felt a little anticlimactic on rereading.
This isn’t a comfortable book. It isn’t a good light read with which to while away a cold afternoon. It’s biting and it’s sad and it’s worthy of, almost necessitates, deep thought. It’s also likely to be a difficult read for anyone who needs likeable characters to connect to, because it’s going to take until the subsequent books in the trilogy before Quentin and most of his crew can be described that way (and before we are truly introduced to Julia, who is everything Quentin’s not). But it’s a marvellous piece of fiction, and an all-time favourite that I will come back to again and again. Most of the people I know who’ve read it respond like tasters of Marmite — there is either love or hate, with few reports of indifference. I think if you are interested not just in fantasy, but in taking fantasy apart and seeing why it makes us tick, you may have room to love it.