I think how a person feels about The Magicians might depend on how that person feels about Narnia. The main character, Quentin, and most of his friends read their version of Narnia (called Fillory) when they were kids, and some of them seem to have remained quite attached to it. At first I took Fillory more as a stand-in for Any Fantasy World You Once Loved, but in the second half of the book I started to think that the Narnia-ness of it actually mattered. And while I enjoyed the Narnia books as a child, whenever I figured out the Christian allegory (about age 11, I think), I went right off them. I still have time for Lewis as a scholar, but I do not care for his fiction. I waded through all the Silent Planet trilogy, in my late teens, because someone I thought well of recommended them, but I thought they started out bad and got worse.
I have no interest in debating whether or not Lewis could write fiction—de gustibus non disputandem est—but I am curious as to what a Narnia-Lover would think of Grossman's book, so if you fall into that category and have read The Magicians, let me know.
[09.19.2011: It is no longer the case that the rest of my thoughts will appear "below the fold," because something's gone screwy with the HTML so I just took it out. I hope that by now anybody who would have minded the spoilers has read the book.] I can't explain what I didn't like without spoilers. What's more, I can't make sense of the book without getting all English-professor-y on its ass.
We meet Quentin as he's about to take the entrance exam for a college of magic; part of what entices him to do so is having a brief encounter with what purports to be a sixth Fillory book, when there only ever were five that anyone knows of. However, it disappears before he can read it. During his years at the college, he periodically re-reads the Fillory books, thus filling readers in on their plots: English kids, a grandfather clock, talking animals, not-too-threatening villains, animal-gods who send the kids back at the end of each set of adventures, you know the drill. College is good: learning magic is very hard, but Quentin makes some friends, attracts a lover (Alice, a super-smart young woman), and passes some seriously hairy exams. The first half of the book worked, for me. There were some obvious Plot Points to Be Developed, like the missing Fillory book, the Girl Left Behind, the Beast (a Terrible Invasion from Another World, when Quentin plays a prank during a lecture), and the Mysterious Death of Alice's Brother. But that's okay; I know that if there's a gun on the table in the first act, it'll get fired in Act III. Anticipation adds to the fun.
After graduation, it's all downhill. Quentin and his friends don't seem to know what to do with themselves, except move to New York and do drugs. Even brilliant Alice hangs out with these losers instead of going to Glasgow for graduate school. (Alice, darling, men are like streetcars; there'll be another one in ten minutes if you just dump Quentin. Quite possibly one with a fabulous Scots accent! Well, there's no telling a 21-year old such things. They just say you're a cynical old bat.) Then one of their not-exactly-a-friends turns up with a magical button that can take them to Fillory. Yes, one of The Magical Buttons that were thoroughly hidden at the end of the fifth book. Not peyote buttons. Just to thicken the plot, Quentin cheats on Alice and then she cheats on him, so everybody can be thoroughly distraught and distracted, and see Fillory as some sort of magical happy potion that will solve all their problems. (The cynical old bat says: wanting to sleep with someone else is Nature's way of telling you it's time to break up. Get the break-up over with first. Can't face it? Okay, then don't sleep with the other one. Grow the fuck up.)
Eight people from this world go to Fillory and have harrowing adventures. Bad Shit Happens. It's all because the Beast (remember the Beast?) is actually one of those English kids from the stories who figured out a way to stay in Fillory. It involves unsavory magical practicies, and he's after Quentin and his pals because he (the Beast) needs to collect all those Magical Buttons so nobody can ever make him go back home. This is significant: apparently staying in Fillory makes you into a monster. Okay. Alice sacrifices herself to save the others, killing the Beast; Quentin is seriously injured and passes out.
Six months later, he comes out of his coma, still in Fillory. The others hung around for a couple of months and then left him. The mysterious sixth book of Fillory turns up again; as he reads it, its author, the youngest of the English kids and sister of the Beast, appears in Quentin's room, so they can talk over what happened. Thanks to a time-travel device, she has been trying for a very long time to kill her brother; every time she or her minions has failed, she undoes everything. This is the only time he's ever wound up dead, so she's not willing to go back and try to make it so Alice survives. She breaks the device. Quentin goes on a quest to find the magic beast that can grant a wish and send him home.
Back in this world, he plans to renounce magic. Uh-huh: then why accept a job through the magical school, even if it's in a big corporation? I mean, if you're going to renounce magic, go whole hog and get an accounting degree from Large Regional U, instead of surfing the internet and collecting a paycheck for doing it in an office in a suit instead of at home in pyjamas. He meets the woman who was involved in the Mysterious Death of Alice's Brother; she thinks Magic is Evil. Quentin can't quite agree.
And the next thing you know, two of his friends from the ill-fated Fillory expedition turn up, along with the Girl He Left Behind, and say they're going back, does Quentin want to come? Yeah. Yeah, he does. The End.
And I said, "What?"
I don't get it. Fillory was awful. The talking bunnies were violent. They had to be killed. And while it's bad enough killing nasty orcs, killing oversized talking bunnies is worse, in my view. Apparently wanting to stay in Fillory, or at least doing what it takes to allow you to stay, turns you into a magical monster. Alice died there. Another guy lost his hands and can no longer do magic. Any sensible person would never want to see the place again. It's not as if there's any hope of restoring Alice, or fixing anything else. They just want to go to Fillory and be kings and queens there. In my view, graduate school would be a much better option.
So what's going on? I have two theories. One is that the ending is "about" the powerful pull that fantasy literature has on its fans; given the opportunity to leave the ordinary world for the fictional one, they'll go, no matter how marvellous their real lives (even if they're powerful magicians!), no matter how awful the fictional world turns out to be. This makes the book a cautionary tale.
The other is that the ending is "about" the powerful pull of Christianity: no matter how atheistic and sophisticated people are, given the chance to enter a Christian orbit, they'll do it. I can't tell if this makes the book cautionary or celebratory. Sir John points out that it seems a bit odd for a writer named Lev Grossman to take the celebratory point of view, so maybe it's cautionary. (I never put too much stock in people's names. I used to know a Filipina called something analogous to Christmas Feinman, okay? You just never know.)
Anyway, there is a minor character, a practicing Christian magician, who is one of the few people with any sense; he helps Quentin's pals prepare for the trip to Fillory, in practical terms, stays out of the doomed expedition, and turns up (after Quentin passes out) to get everybody else out of the maze they were in. This makes Christians look like the good guys, or at least, like the sensible, responsible grown-ups. Moreover, the fantastically irritating animal-god (a ram, get it?), who keeps telling people that there are things beyond their understanding (I cheered when one of Quentin's friends said she'd heard just about enough about her understanding, thank you), does say two wise things before the Beast kills him: one, that Fillory is not a theme park for the Children of Earth to dress up and play with swords in, and two, how can Quentin expect to save Fillory when he can't even save himself? Alice has said similar things to Quentin at various points, so this seems to be a theme in the book.
But I suppose it could be along the line of even a stopped clock being right twice a day: everybody from Alice to the the ram-god is telling Quentin the same thing, and he still doesn't want to hear it.
Maybe it's just supposed to be a dark fantasy where there are no good guys and nobody wins. Well, that's not what I read fantasy for. And I sure don't want to have to get all English-proffy on my brain-candy's ass in order to make sense of it. Indeterminate endings work fine for lit classes, if that's what floats your boat, but when I read for fun I want a clear-cut happy ending where good triumphs. If Narnia and talking animal-gods are bad, boring, unsophisticated, whatever, then let's have Quentin & Co. grow up. If they're good, then let's have them take Fillory and its problems seriously.
Maybe this is a weird homage to Narnia from someone who enjoyed the books as a kid and then, though Jewish, found they were Christian allegory and that really screwed him up. Maybe.
I don't know. The hell with it. I think I need to go read some Vorkosigan space opera to clear my mental palate. Let's kick some Cetagandan ass.