Take a heavy dose of Narnia, add a hefty dollop of Harry Potter, stir in some Bret Easton Ellis and a dash of The Catcher in the Rye, then cook for adults. That glib description shortchanges The Magicians, even though Fillory clearly owes a major debt to Narnia and the preppy Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy somewhat resembles Hogwarts.
Quentin Coldwater is an overachieving, solitary math nerd from Brooklyn, who thinks he’s attending an entrance interview for Princeton but instead gains admittance to Brakebills. Magic turns out to be real, but difficult, requiring much grinding practice and study. It’s not all dull work: Quentin and his girlfriend Alice end up sharing a house with the hedonistic Practical Kids until graduation.
Moving to New York, they lose themselves in sensual pleasure and ennui. The morning after Quentin estranges Alice by sleeping with the predatory Janet, they are all astounded when Penny, another former classmate, brings them a button which can transport them to Fillory.
The five Fillory books were written in the 1930s about the Chatwin children, who travel from England to the mystical land of Fillory where they reign as kings and queens. Quentin has always been a huge fan of the books, yearning to fill the void in his life with the simple adventures of Fillory. Neither he nor the others had actually believed that Fillory existed, however. Fillory turns out to be much darker than they expect, as The Beast who now reigns there, pulls them into a trap that shatters them. Quentin survives but emerges more depressed than ever.
The Magicians is funny and inventive and somber, and I highly recommend it. Quentin, for all his irritating flaws, is an interesting character, who eventually grows up, at great cost to himself and his friends.