The Big Idea: Lev Grossman

After a bit of a summer vacation, the Big Idea is back! And to kick things off, author Lev Grossman is here with The Magicians, his new fantasy novel, which aside from starred reviews in Booklist and Library Journal, has prompted no less than George R.R. Martin (who knows from fantasy) to declare that it “is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to weak tea.” Mmmm.. Irish whiskey. But what does such praise actually mean? What about the book makes it a stiff shot of the fantastical? As it happens, Grossman can tell you exactly what it means, and does, below.


Here’s the idea: what if Narnia and Harry Potter were real.

Yeah, on the face of it this doesn’t sound like an especially big idea. It more sounds like the idea I had every day for about 10 years, between the ages of 7 and 17, before I gave up on my prospects of ever getting to Narnia. (It was all about Narnia for me, since I am massively old and Hogwarts didn’t exist yet when I was a kid.) But bear with me.

What if, as a high school senior, you discovered that there was a secret college for magic, serving only the most brilliant kids in North America? This is in the real world, our world, the one with cell phones and the Internet and Dancing with the Stars and all the rest of it. A lot of things would be different. There would be an intense, exhaustively competitive entrance examination. (But you would get in.) There would be beer. There would be sex. Actual sex, not just snogging. People would do stupid, dangerous things with their newfound powers. They would hurt each other. They would hurt themselves.

There would also be fantasy novels. As far as I can tell Harry Potter never read a fantasy novel in his life before he went to Hogwarts. But you have. You’d have expectations about how magic would work, and what the life of a magician would be like, based on the books you’d read. Except those expectations would be wrong, because real life doesn’t work like a fantasy novel.

Here’s what there wouldn’t be, if Hogwarts were really real: Voldemort. Or Sauron, or the White Witch, or any other Big Bad. Incarnations of ultimate evil are pretty rare in real life. So instead of the world being organized into good and bad, white and black, it would all be shades of grey, and nobody would know where anybody stood, including themselves. It would be a much more complicated and confusing place. With Voldemort in the picture, you know what magic is for: it’s for fighting evil. Take him out of the equation, and you get a very different kind of adventure, one that’s less about using magic to fight evil and more about just trying to figure out what the hell magic is for.

Which brings us to Narnia. It wouldn’t be called Narnia, of course, for good and sufficient reasons having to do with intellectual property law, but it would be another world, a childlike, fairy-tale world of green forests and talking animals, about which a series of charming young adult fantasy novels had been written. But this world — which in The Magicians is called Fillory — would be real, not fictional. Which begs the question, how did the novels about it get written? And what happened to the children who went to Fillory? After all, who in their right mind would send a bunch of children to intervene in a civil war in a magical foreign country, where they know nothing about the laws and the culture and the history?

I wrote The Magicians at a difficult time in my life. My writing career was stalled. My marriage was going under. This was the novel I wanted to read then. I’m a grown-up who loves young adult fantasies like Narnia and Harry Potter and The Once and Future King and so on and so on, but when you read those stories as an adult, you can’t help but be aware that the author is keeping the brakes on. It’s like one of those Star Trek episodes with the Holodeck, where they keep the safety protocols on. Maybe it’s just because I’m bitter and disillusioned, but I wanted to know what would happen if the safety protocols came off — what those make-believe stories would look like if you dragged them out into the harsh, pitiless light of the real world. If I did my job right, they might look something like The Magicians.


The Magicians: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of The Magicians. Visit the nerd culture blog at Time magazine, which Grossman co-writes. Check out this feature on Grossman, in the Los Angeles Times.

36 Comments on “The Big Idea: Lev Grossman”

  1. I actually read this book last week, after seeing a blurb about it at Salon. It’s a well written book, with a lot of interesting ideas. Unlike a lot of reviews I’ve read (after reading the book), I thought it was fairly well-paced. My main struggle with the book was mostly my personal taste in books: I tend to prefer books that have more uplifting plots. Not that I expect (or even want) my books to be pure optimism, but I like the “low” parts of the books to be balanced by roughly equal “high” parts. Instead, The Magicians, particularly in the more significant parts, tends to be more realistic–instead of depressing problems being solved, you get a ray of hope that maybe things will suck less in the future. Coupled with the fact that many of the problems faced by the protagonist are (realistically) self-induced rather than externally driven, I was less satisfied at the end than I usually am after reading a book.

    None of this is meant to dissuade a potential reader. In some ways, this book is sticking with me more than my usual fare. People need to read books like this once in a while to gain a different perspective–it just tends to be a personal preference as to how often you need that.

  2. According to Wikipedia, you, Mr. Grossman, were born in 1969, the same year as Scalzi. As someone born in 1957, I must object to your characterizing yourself as “massively old.” I mean, “old”, certainly. But “massively old”? I’m offended. ;-)

  3. That is a very cool cover. The concept sounds interesting too… I think I’ll be picking this up on my next trip to the bookstore. Which will happen just as soon as I am a little less broke. Alas, kitty kibble comes before books.

  4. Ok, I was just reading a review of this book this morning. Obviously I need to get a copy. Oh, and I turned 61 last weekend. That’s old; you’re not.

  5. I want to have written this. Fortunately I haven’t started yet, so I don’t have to abandon it half-finished.

    I’ve been looking forward to reading it since hearing an interview on NPR.

  6. I saw another recommendation/review of this book over at Joe Abercrombie’s blog and based on his kind words had immediately placed an Amazon order. Fortunately, I got mine in before they ran out, which will now be a possibility as I am sure many further orders have been placed after reading about it here. :)

  7. And the kindle version is, of course, overpriced as well, which means it’s a non-sale until the publisher decides to join the realms of the sane. It does sound interesting, though.

  8. I’m so glad I stopped by here today. There was a horrible review of this book in yesterday’s USA Today, and if I hadn’t seen this, I might’ve skipped the book. Thank you again for opening my eyes.

  9. I read this book. It was a little too Catcher in the Rye with Holden in the role of Harry Potter for my tastes. I was disappointed in it.

  10. This book looks pretty awesome, but I think I’m going to have to wait a while to forget that it’s being promoed via “Those other things you like? They suck, and instead of them, you should read this thing, which is much better” before I’ll actually want to read it. It’s a pity that what looks to be a very good book can’t be described without being condescending about other books. Few other tactics in advertising turn me off as much as someone taking pains to tell me that the things I already enjoy are inferior to the new thing I haven’t tried yet.

  11. By the half-point of this Big Idea, I was planning to walk to the bookstore and BUY THIS.

    Alas, a brief search showed that the bookstore is charging about $20 more than I can afford to pay. I suppose I will have to wait for the paperback edition.

  12. @Fade: That kind of advertising really bugs me too. Different books do different things and a book can be good without being groundbreaking (hm, sounds like some of the discussions about the Hugo awards). I do read Mr. Grossman’s blog over at Time and feel that he, at least, has come across as a big fan of the genre and not bashing at all.

    The worst example of this I’ve encountered recently was Battlestar Galactica. I almost stopped watching the series after watching the bonus features on the first season because I was so disgusted by how dismissive many of the creators of the show – especially Ron Moore – were toward the rest of the sci-fi/fantasy genre (as it was I stopped watching because of their ignorance of how to use fantasy elements in a non-infuriating way, but that’s neither here nor there). And if you’re reading the comments Mr. Grossman, I totally didn’t mention that to bust your ass. Complete coincidence, really.

    Anyhoo, the book looks fabulous, apologies for the digression, and I’m looking forward to picking it up when the Kindle price comes down.

  13. I’d like to echo Fade and Megan – though my reaction was a bit stronger. Honestly, I have no interest in picking this book up now. There are perils to the “F* that book you liked school of marketing”.

  14. “What if, as a high school senior, you discovered that there was a secret college for magic, serving only the most brilliant kids in North America? This is in the real world, our world, the one with cell phones and the Internet and Dancing with the Stars and all the rest of it. ”

    I’d write a fanzine editorial about how whatever state it was in wasn’t spending enough money on science teachers. [Oops. Wrong century for my fandom. Sorry.]

  15. Sara@19,

    Check the library! My university library didn’t have it, but it was available for inter-library loan. Yippee!

  16. I just need to say this:

    “Harry Potter never read a fantasy novel in his life before he went to Hogwarts.”

    This may be true. But Lucy, at least, has (and Eustace has explicitly not).

  17. Eustace turns out okay in the end, though. :-D

    Geez, I hope I didn’t just spoil the book…

  18. I started this book on the plane home from Worldcon in Montreal, and finished it the next day. It’s one of the most engrossing books I’ve read in some time. I think it’s going to be huge.

  19. Thanks for the link to the LA Times story, where I learned that Grossman is the son of Allen Grossman, whom I was lucky to have as a professor in the mid-1970s; the course was “The Representation of Experience” and covered the Gilgamesh myth, the Aeneid, and lots more. He was simply all anyone could ask for in a humanities teacher (and, outside of that classroom, an accessible and interesting poet as well; not many of those).

  20. I just finished it myself and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It was a good change of pace from typical fantasy novels. I hope he writes more.

  21. After all, who in their right mind would send a bunch of children to intervene in a civil war in a magical foreign country, where they know nothing about the laws and the culture and the history?

    George W Bush?
    Oops, sorry, bit of politics there.

  22. I don’t see where Grossman said that there was anything the matter with either of his two source books. He said they both followed certain conventions and that he wanted to write a book with a similar premise that deliberately did not follow those conventions. I don’t see where he suggested fucking Harry Potter, frankly.

  23. hope, upon closer reading, I see that you’re right. The point that put me in an uncharitable mood right from the start wasn’t from the author of the book, but from a completely different author entirely. I saw the snide “weak tea” analogy, skimmed down the post, and what next caught my eye was complaining about Narnia and Harry Potter being too “safe.” More context and a more careful examination of the text does indeed show that the author is not calling either of those properties bad, but pointing out this book is taking a different approach to similar premises.

    So while I’m now feeling somewhat grumpy at George R.R. Martin, I am no longer irate at Lev Grossman, and can cheerfully add this book to my wishlist. Sweet. (And you’d think that after all these years, I would have learned to actually re-read things more closely before getting grumpy at them.)

  24. I find the cover picture of this book eerily compelling. It doesn’t seem like a natural fit for the ostensible subject, but somewhow, it’s incredibly intriguing to me.

    So, uh, author guy, your publisher did well in designing your cover, at least in my case.

  25. Reading this book now and I love it!

    Read the sample yesterday afternoon, and bought the full version on my Kindle for $9.99.

    Stayed up way too late last night and finished Book 1. Can’t wait until work is over this afternoon so I can go home and finish reading it!

  26. Definitely one of the best books I’ve read in many years! I am a librarian. I read a few Narnia’s back when I was young and read a couple of the Potter books with my kids. I agree this is different, a grownup novel about real grownup ideas and conflicts. I don’t usually like coming of age stories anymore (how many times do you want to relive that?) but this one was grand. My book intake is well above average but I rarely get chills and gasp out loud like I did when reaching the end of this. All I can say is, “When is the sequel–please??”

  27. I stayed up late to finish this and have turned around and recommended it to others. I’d read the sample chapter months ago without feeling a real need to continue reading it – I’m really glad I decided to buy it and keep going. It takes the books I cut my teeth on and the tabletop RPGs I played in high school and used them as a jumping-off that I found very satisfying. The world-crafting in the Harry Potter books, for example, just doesn’t really work for me and makes it a little harder for me to fall into the storytelling (although, FWIW, I’ve read all the books in the series, some more than once). The Magicians more realistic and more cohesive take on it is more satisfying on that level, and if anything, has me wanting to re-read the Narnia books again.

    The Magicians falls into the same category as A.S. Byatt’s ‘The Children’s Book’ – I love seeing the grittier realism – but I’m not going to pick it up if I’m feeling a little low. There are sections I want to hide from, when it gets a little too real.

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