Grossman creates a world that separates him from C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling like he tries to separate "magic" from "fantasy." His gritty, cold and brutal approach are startling, unique — and not for everyone. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
Quentin is a math genius and a fair hand at magician tricks with cards and pulling coins out of ears. Life is boring: school is easy, his parents are distantly interested, his friends are expanding and contracting. On his way to an interview with an admissions officer from Princeton, Quentin reviews his options and finds them all lacking.
He also finds the interviewer quite dead, and he and his friend James are shuttled aside by officials as they examine the situation. The only one who seems to have an interest in them is the nonplussed paramedic, who tries to hand Quentin and James large envelopes with their names on them. What the two young men choose to do at that point changes their lives forever.
Grossman attempts to bring the magical world into the harsh light of reality, where people pay the consequences for their actions. Grossman appears to provide an antidote to magical worlds offered by other authors. For Quentin and his fellow Brakebill students, it's not abracadabra, physics and chemistry be challenged with mystical creatures and the willful suspension in reality. In Grossman's fictional world, magic is hard manual labor that may or may not pay off in the end— and can be directly applied to any world in which a magician may find her/himself.
Few characters in this novel are truly likeable. Students are isolated from the rest of the world, despite their ability to return to it — and as a result, the unlikeable people are pushed together to grow even less likable as time goes on. They are surrounded by tension and difficulty at every turn, and the school and their teachers are, for the most part, unlikeable as well. While reading this book, isolation and desolation seep into readers' consciousness, and a dark cloud rumbles as slowly approaches.
Honestly, I don't need that kind of reality in my fantasy. I get it: life is hard, people die and fantasy is not real. It is like telling a perfectly happy 5-year-old there is no Santa. It has a kill-joy feel to it, a meanness that looks to spoil fantasy for the reader.
A sequel, The Magician's King, will be published in summer 2011. Grossman gave a unique and unflinching look at the world he created, which was fascinating in its own way. I just don't know if I want to go back.