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Originally published Sunday, August 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

'The Magicians': Magic is easy, growing up is hard

In "The Magicians," Time magazine book critic and novelist Lev Grossman creates a Harry Potter fable, but with a difference: The students of a remote school for young magicians confront the ultimate mystery of growing up.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Magicians"

by Lev Grossman

Viking, 402 pp., $26.95

It takes a force greater than a Patronus spell to resist describing Lev Grossman's beguiling new novel "The Magicians" as anything other than "Harry Potter" for grown-ups. Because that's exactly how this fantasy tale reads. Much of it is set at a remote school for young magicians, and its main character is a brooding young man who in the course of his education makes friends and learns a great deal about magic — and about the even more challenging mysteries of life and love.

Grossman, author of the novel "Codex" and book critic for Time magazine, acknowledges in hints that his characters have read "Harry Potter." (In an introduction to the school's magical team sport, a more earthbound Quidditch variant known as welters, an only-half-joking student asks if broomsticks are involved.) But he gives his story a crucial difference that makes it not just an homage, but a creation of its own: The characters age in the course of the novel from late teens to early 20s. It's still a coming-of-age tale, but there are no children here.

The Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy bears many similarities to Hogwarts, both in the mysterious travel involved to get there (it's someplace in upstate New York, but you get whooshed there by magic) and in its varied and eccentric faculty. But its students are very American and very contemporary: Of one troubled, tightly wound student, a classmate observes, "He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog." (He hits somebody.) And they face issues entirely foreign to their younger Hogwarts counterparts. For example, if two students who are casually dating are transformed into foxes and copulate, as foxes do, are they still virgins when they're human again? And does this mean their relationship has gone to the next level?

Essentially, "The Magicians" is the story of Quentin Coldwater, who is introduced to us as a smart, moody 17-year-old from Brooklyn with a gift for sleight-of-hand magic and a passionate love for the fantasy novels of Christopher Plover. These books, which take place in the Narnia-like land of Fillory, turn out to be a touchstone for all the characters, as the C.S. Lewis or J.K. Rowling books are for many young people. It's no surprise when we're transported to Fillory in the novel's final third, and that Quentin is destined to learn some secrets there.

This familiar material might all too easily feel like a retread; a less-vivid return to lands well known. But Grossman skillfully moves us through four years of school and a postgraduate adventure, never letting the pace slacken. And he understands something quite moving about the uncertainties of young adulthood (the problem with growing up, notes Quentin, is that "once you're grown up, people who aren't grown up aren't fun any more") and about the isolation inherent in being different. When the students leave school, they return to a Manhattan seemingly without a place for them, carrying a bagful of skills that conjure up everything but happiness.

Late in the book, Quentin reflects on how he has changed since his first days at Brakebills. "He'd thought that doing magic was the hardest thing he would ever do, but the rest of it was so much harder. It turned out that magic was the easy part."

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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