I first heard of The Magicians when it most suited my mood; that is, in the deep swishy gravity well of self-loathing I’d created in the aftermath of a failed ... something. I won’t call it a relationship, because it wasn’t one, and it lacked all the relevant markers of real intimacy which make a something into something real. My endless, piteous wallowing found a good complement in the first season of the television show adapted from Lev Grossman’s books. The show got to me first because SyFy runs it concurrently with The Expanse, which remains, probably and despite the advent of solid performer Star Trek Discovery, the best science fiction show on television in America. That I don’t actually have access to the SyFy channel doesn’t actually matter; that’s what streaming on-demand apps are for, and the iTunes store.
There was bound to be some bleed-over of interest when the ads for both shows--one I knew nothing about, and one I love a great deal--are constantly bound up together. I ordered the first season on DVD through the library, though, because magic deserves to be warped by the giant vacuum tubes lurking in the monolithic entertainment center previous renters left behind in my living room, presumably because they couldn’t fit it back out through the door. How did it get in at all in the first place, I always wonder.
So I watched the first season of The Magicians, at first because it was kind of cool, and then because it suited my mood, and finally because I hate returning unfinished books and movies to the library. It’s as though the computer system knows, and judges me.
By all that’s holy and good, though, I wish I hadn’t watched the last couple of episodes. Other, more adequate reviewers (see here and here) have touched on the show’s complicated, problematic, and deeply triggering explorations of rape and how sexual trauma can shape a life. Not just “explorations of,” of course. Depictions of. I won’t get into that here, except to say that for all its flaws, the show departs from its source material in some kind ways. And some truly, vastly, shitty ways. That it does all of this--improves upon the book’s plotting, character development, magical systems, and imagery--while still managing to be an incredibly uneven, slow, grim, and occasionally downright boring show goes pretty far in telling you what my major issues with Lev Grossman’s book happen to be.
I can say this now that I’ve read The Magicians.
And look, I get the appeal. I’m brushing 30, which means I’m less starry-eyed about my SFF loves than I used to be. Quentin Coldwater, star of The Magicians, is the perfect stand-in for any smart-enough-to-feel-alienated-from-”normal”-humdrum-classmates white kid from the suburbs, or at least, any such kid who happened to be weaned on C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and similar fantasies which we collectively lean on to teach our children Judeo-Christian morals while also supposedly having “fun.” (Try reading that sentence aloud without taking a breath.)
Quentin discovers, as Lev Grossman presumably did, and as all of us privileged white middle-class American kids do, that you don’t get to take a break from the real world. Ever. Even when you’re quite literally a kid with magic powers who gets to explore a fantasy world.
Adulthood is messy and violent and it sucks. Even in Narnia. I mean, Fillory. I mean, Loria? WTF dude, if you’re going to reference Lewis and Tolkien and Rowling and literally every pre-90s children’s fantasy author (except Pullman, weirdly) on every page you can just call the place Narnia. Unless that violates intellectual property guidelines. In which case--if you find yourself constructing a world so closely parallel to another author’s that only calling it by another name is keeping you from copyright infringement--you probably should write a different book.
Was that why Grossman included all the Fox God Semen Power stuff? I guess Tolkien and Lewis never quite went there. In true pre-90’s Judeo-Christian fashion, their worlds are also completely devoid of breasts, which in The Magicians are always full and always, somehow, naked beneath this blouse or that dress. I think someone should walk Grossman through the definition of “naked,” personally. If men see a woman’s breasts as naked no matter what she wears, then it’s no wonder rape culture is so confusing on top of being downright repulsive. (“If she didn’t want it, she shouldn’t have dressed like a hooker,” you tell us while news anchors deliberate over just how low a victim’s neckline was the night she was raped BUT ALSO women are often assaulted while fully clothed, in turtlenecks and sweatpants AND ALSO IT DOESN’T FUCKING MATTER, WOMEN DON’T EVER “DESERVE” TO BE RAPED.) At least three times in the book, all the kids have to strip down for class, and nipples are always present and ogled in disproportion to, say, everything else.
If you think I’m lying, here are a couple of direct quotes I texted to a poor, poor friend as I read:
“He was suddenly aware of her full breasts inside her thin, high-necked blouse.”
“He could sense her naked body inside her dress, smell it like a vampire smells blood.”
I could fill an entire page with similar quotes, but I won’t, because after about page 100 I was so desperate to be done I just skipped paragraphs which referred to breasts & penises & the unbelievably sexist Josh & whatnot. Josh, for the record, wants to bone, constantly, every female within reach. Including freezing shallow creek spirits and apparently, Galadriel. Enough that he eventually vanishes trying to transport himself into Tolkien’s Middle Earth. No, I’m not kidding. It’s all there in black ink. In an actual book. That people read. All of Grossman’s other characters simply tolerate him because, I don’t know, it might be uncomfortable to call out his unrelenting sexism once in awhile?
But OH, how I wish Grossman’s tired, sad, and genuinely disturbing take on the male gaze was at the very least limited to the incredibly trope-ish Madonna vs. Magdalene female cardboard cutouts he assembles throughout The Magicians. But no. Straight white boy Quentin, despite regularly reminding readers that he is straight, has the gall to resent his friend Eliot for being gay for other men but not for him, ultra-straight Quentin. He stumbles upon Eliot having an intimate moment with a male partner, pauses long enough to tell us he sees all their junk but is manifestly not pausing long enough to watch (um), and quote:
“On some level Quentin was hurt: If this was what Eliot wanted, why hadn’t he come after Quentin?”
Because a gay man must automatically be attracted to every single other man in sight, right? All lesbians have insatiable desires to get with every other woman in the world, right? Meanwhile, it apparently makes perfect sense to Grossman (and therefore, Quentin) for heterosexual people to only ever be interested in one or two partners at a time. But also to torture these partners, because, well. The male double-standard still applies.
There’s a disturbing moment in the book when Quentin gets really drunk and has a bisexual threesome, followed by much self-loathing and malingering. That he alienates his perfect, definitely more interesting and powerful girlfriend because he got drunk and had threesome sex in part to spite her seems logical. Quentin kind of meant to hurt her, and he did. The extent of this perfect woman’s reaction is to avoid him. But oh! When sweet, good, should-have-her-own-book Alice eventually has a chance to get laid, Quentin demolishes an entire roomful of furniture, then spends the remainder of her short life eking an apology out of her for hurting him. For somehow cheating on him despite the fact they were clearly not dating at the time. DAMMIT, GROSSMAN.
Grossman really outdoes himself when it comes to women. They’re just interesting enough, and live just long enough, to become the best parts of The Magicians. But then they’re killed, maimed, or mysteriously abandoned as the plot goes forward. If they’re not somehow naked and nymph-like while fully clothed, they’re not much to look at but have really well-developed hand musculature. Every woman is straight out of Craig Thompson’s Habibi--beautiful in a willowy way, or part of the scenery. Scenery which revolves around a nondescript, unexceptional (but still somehow brilliant enough to get into an elite magical school) white boy at the center of a world he so desperately wants to belong to. Have power over. He is the nerdy, awkward, but still somehow irresistible object of secret desire--women’s, men’s, and more--who we have been trained to believe fantasy is built around.
(I should note that the show improves upon this material so very very much, despite everything.)
Yeah, I get it. We want to be special, to feel special, but we don’t quite know how we can be special without royally screwing things up. But, hell with it, the world is pretty screwed up anyway, so why not be an asshole and luxuriate in that specialness for a moment before going back and becoming an investment banker?
Selfish desire. Oh, we all get that. And yeah, it probably deserves its own grown-up fantasy book.
No, I don’t resent the fact that The Magicians exists. I think an existentialist examination of how our childish desires for escape--via fantasy--intersect with the way the real world works is brilliant, in concept. And the first 50 or so pages of The Magicians is so sharply written I really thought the rest of the book would deliver. That it didn’t, well, that’s kind of okay too. No book can be perfect. And sometimes 50 good pages in a row is an accomplishment in and of itself.
Ultimately, however, Grossman’s imagination leads back to and relies upon the very construct he’s so determined to subvert: that fantasy is an escape from reality. I suspect that like many young (straight, white, privileged, middle-class) men in America, he isn’t willing to come to terms with much less find joy in a reality where privileged young white men do not, contrary to all desire and expectation, deserved applause just for existing.
Here’s where I stop talking about Grossman in specific and start talking about where we go from here. And luckily, quite a few authors are already making names for themselves in science fiction and fantasy without falling into the same traps laid by white privilege and male habit. These worlds are populated by diverse characters, round and rich characters of all genders and sexualities, by women with powerful sexual desire and fascinating, complex ethics. These worlds, too, are concerned with the ways in which we hurt ourselves and each other, with trauma and assault and the aftermath. They, too, occasionally adopt existentialist and grim worldviews. They, too, sometimes fail to make good on brilliant premise; all books do. But they offer us something new and fresh and irresistibly attractive to readers. They offer representation and self-awareness.
You will already know some of the names I’m thinking of: N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Sarah Gailey, Liu Cixen, Seanan McGuire, Brian K. Vaughan, Ken Liu, Charlie Jane Anders, Kij Johnson, Leila del Duca, G. Willow Wilson, Ann Leckie, Omar El Akkad, Jaroslav Kalfar, Jeff VanderMeer, Nicola Griffith, and a great many more. Before them came Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, Philip Pullman, Mary Doria Russell, and others. I could name names all day and all night. There are plenty of gifted authors willing to break down tropes and set up new targets to aim for, and occasionally, miss. They are decentralizing narratives of privilege. They are advocating for diversity and representation and agency. They are legion.
Which begs the question: if you can read a book which does something new, which just might change the way you see your world, why would you ever choose to read something that doesn’t? Why would you ever choose to write a lesser book?
Look, here’s where a lot of people go wrong. They think feeling special is about ignoring everything that doesn’t affirm their centrality to the universe. (Perhaps this is a particularly Western failing. I’d love to hear other voices weigh in on that possibility.) What I can say without hesitation is that there are more ways to feel special--there are more ways to find meaning, individually and collectively--than are dreamt of in The Magicians' philosophy. There are more ways of framing and subverting fantasy. Some of them are already out there in the world, planting seeds, being tended by willing and imaginative hands. For his willingness to try, I’m almost willing to give Lev Grossman a cookie. But ultimately, The Magicians only pays lip service to the true power of imagination: the ability to confront ourselves as we are, and speculate as to other ways of being and seeing.