I originally had this book described to me as “Harry Potter meets The Catcher in the Rye.” As a fan of both those things I was intrigued. While Grossman does draw inspiration from Harry Potter, making casual references to the series and subtly mocking it, this book was much more of a dystopian version of the Narnia series.
The book starts off at Brakebills, a special school for young magicians (much like Hogwarts, leading to the comparisons to Harry Potter), but moves much farther past that. The characters in the book are older than Harry and his friends, and as such are much more prone to vice. They drink, do drugs, have sex, and use magic for their own personal gain. While magic is the driving force behind this book, the characters still live in the real world which is much less fantastical than other fantasy series. Magic is something that is hard, and it does not necessarily solve all the problems.
Even when the group of friends travel to Fillory, the magical Narnia-esq realm, magic is still a very dangerous thing. This novel is a very weird, twisted, cynical, and bitter look at the fantasy books that we all read growing up. In Grossman’s world, magic is not some wondrous problem solving thing. With or without magic, people are still people and will make mistakes and be corrupted. Using magic, even for good, changes a person and has the ability to break them.
The only problem I had with this book is that on a number of occasions very strange and random things happen, (like the group is all turned into geese in order to fly to the South Pole), or Grossman will be building up to a major event, which will quickly be resolved by magic but in a very uneventful way. I think Grossman was doing these things on purpose, but they bothered me nonetheless. There are still two more books left in the trilogy and I’m excited to see where those take us.