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Taking the whimsy out of magic: A review of Lev Grossman's 'The Magicians'

A magical looking book from Irag
A magical looking book from Irag
(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Recently, the word ‘whimsy’ has been surreptitiously sneaking into both my everyday life as well as my life of fiction (for lack of a better phrase). Even the movies I watch seem to somehow mention or create whimsy in some form or another. In The Princess Bride’s bonus features(a movie I watched just last night), for example, one actor talks about the storyline being the perfect combination of whimsy and fantasy, making the film a classic for old and young, male and female alike. In fact, whimsy has become so ubiquitous within fiction and fantasy that it’s starting to sound like a basic compound for such successful novels as Harry Potter and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Whimsy is, in fact, so important that movie stars OUGHT to be using it as a name for their first child….and if not, we can always count on Gwyneth Paltrow’s eighth or ninth child, I’m sure.

But, what is whimsy? For me, and maybe for many other book-lovers, whimsy is that perfect concoction of all the better parts of reality mixed with all the better parts of fantasy. Harry Potter’s first foray into Diagon Alley, for example, is one hundred percent pure whimsy. It’s what many a child has wished for…a hidden world where evil is ugly and incarnate and where friends are lovely and true.

So, with much anticipation, I snagged Lev Grossman’s newest magical novel, The Magicians (a novel touted in some reviews as the new Harry Potter for adults), from the library and hunkered down for a good old fashioned dose of my favourite medicine: whimsy.

Boy, was I disappointed. Lev Grossman’s novel is not meant to create whimsy. Lev Grossman’s novel is also not about escaping the dreariest, most irritating daily realities that humans face. In fact, The Magicians is so fantastically un-whimsical that I actually feared the book had gone out and killed all the whimsy left over from the last Harry Potter movie, leaving us whimsy-less until next year.

While using The Magicians to follow a young American genius through his discovery of a hidden, magical society, Grossman manages to address all those horribly mundane details that somehow escaped out of some of the most popular magical fantasy fiction books ever published. Remember how, for instance, Harry Potter is a magician who could, presumably, just conjure up whatever riches and food and fancies he needed? And remember how his friend, Ron, lived in relative poverty despite the magical abilities of his family?

Lev Grossman remembered that so well that he made it a central theme in his novel.

Also, remember how Arthur turns into a bird (or a fish, maybe?) in The Sword and the Stone movie? Remember how he can talk and think like a person even though he has a little, teeny, tiny bird (fish??) brain?

Lev Grossman remembered that, too. And another little piece of whimsy died when he addressed it in his novel.

The funny thing, however, is that after Grossman kills all the whimsy in his novel, he tries to bring it back! He purposefully tries to resurrect the whimsy after it has been dead, buried, and forgotten for ages. Sadly, the resurrected whimsy is never the same after Grossman finished with it. In fact, whimsy became downright ridiculously lame. After all, there’s nothing fantastic about a talking bear or a murderous hare after the main characters use magic to cook up alcohol flooded dinner parties and drug induced threesomes. In fact, these fleecy talking animals just seem stupid and, worst of all, annoying. Luckily, Grossman's excellent prose and his ability to control the plot drags The Magicians out of the realm of stupidity just before you feel like chucking the half-read novel in the library's return bin.

In the end, Grossman endeavors to deconstruct the best of magical fiction as a means of showing what true magic might look like in a world like ours. While Grossman manages to succeed in combining the magical with the mundane, he also succeeds in killing out the most beautiful part of magical fiction: whimsy. It's an interesting book that might make you more than a little crazy. So, read The Magicians, I dare you. But don’t come running to me when you’re all out of whimsy. You’ll just have to wait for the next Harry Potter movie like the rest of us poor slobs.

P.S If you read The Magicians and happen to catch Grossman's shout-out to Inuit people in Canada, don't worry, he's aware of the major mistake he made (Inuit reserves in Saskatchewan...Ha!). I emailed him at his website ( and he sent a "very chagrined" reply the very next day! This makes me think that Lev Grossman is a really cool individual who truly cares about his fans' opinions.


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