I probably shouldn't review or recommend a book till I've finished it. I'm only about halfway through Lev Grossman's The Magicians, but so far I think it's the best thing I've read since Pamela Dean's The Secret Country, which longtime readers will recognize as my highwater mark of fantasy literature.
Normally when I like a book I gallop through it, often ignoring somatic calls for food, sleep, or bathroom breaks, completely submerged in the world of the book, resentful if I have to put it down and re-engage with the world around me. Now I'm trying to slow myself down. I'm hoping not even to open the book today, to think about the first half of it and allow myself to remain suspended partway in the book-world, enjoying the idea that it will be there waiting for me tomorrow. I am, for once, acutely aware that I have only one opportunity to read this book for the first time, and I wish I were somewhere away from home so I could, in future, remember the occasion more precisely. (As, for instance, I remember reading Dracula in a friend's apartment in New York City, with a party going on around me, because I could not put it down.)
I saw a brief notice of The Magicians in the Times' Book Review last weekend (debuted at number nine on the hardback best-seller list), and thought I'd go to a bookstore and take a look. It might be something I would like, I thought, something like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. But it might also be simply fun, or actually stupid: my standards are high, and perhaps quirky.
I read five pages and handed over the hardcover price without hesitation. The book does deal with the study of magic. But it's something else entirely. Not to knock JS and Mr. N, which I enjoyed very much, and have read twice. The Magicians has a density, a gravity, a conviction that goes beyond any other fantasy literature I have ever encountered (and I include John Crowley and other masters of the fantasy novel, the novel that is a novel and not, say, a yarn, an epic, a children's story). It belongs to what I consider the hardest sub-category to write well, the magic-enters-the-modern-world type: this is part of the reason I would rank it above Bujold's Chalion books, which I found completely compelling on first reading and to which I have returned frequently. They take place entirely in another world, with its own laws and religion; Bujold doesn't have to make magic square with cell phones and the Internet.
If The Magicians ends badly or clumsily, like His Dark Materials (and really, how was Pullman supposed to get out of the hole he dug himself? he probably did as well as could be expected given the set-up), I will be disappointed. This may be one reason I'm trying to spin out the reading experience; I want to live in hope of an ending that matches the build-up. But if it ends well, I have a new masterpiece on my shelf.
Please don't include any spoilers if you comment.