In Lev Grossman’s delightful, if slightly disturbing, 2009 book, The Magicians, the author draws high fantasy’s sword from the stone one more time, but manages to sharpen and harden the edge to slice and dice a re-imagining of a fantasy world that is tougher, more mature, and more realistic than, say, the high-school world of Harry Potter or that of Narnia’s more innocent children.

Grossman’s modern setting begins in New York, then moves to a pastoral college for magicians in upstate New York on the Hudson. In fact, the literate students refer to both the Harry Potter body of fiction and to a Narnia-like set of book called the Fillory chronicles, Fillory and Further, a set of five novels for children “published in England in the 1930s.” In his fresh, post-modernist look at fantasy, Grossman manages to both playfully mock the conventions of fantasy, and yet to draw from it and add his own vision to that grand literary universe.

A central conceit is to seriously tackle the implications of magic on these young adults. What would these awesome powers of manipulation do to a person’s emotions, to his/her ethics, to daily motivation, to long-term ambition . . . if so much could be conjured and controlled? The characters at Brakebills College suffer a realistic cycle of doubt, exhilaration, ennui, insouciance, personal bonding and betrayal, all pulled down by the hedonism of booze and sex, the difficulty of taking anything seriously when so much is variable.

In particular, Quentin Coldwater and his colleagues struggle with the challenge of imagining any career after school that would have the artificial intensity and systems of expectations and rewards as the world of rigorous academia.

Grossman shows at least one set of parents, magicians themselves, who have descended into apathy, near lunacy, and he talks about other magical graduates with great powers and low ambitions that spend their time in irrelevant pursuits, working at hedge funds making easy money or randomly tinkering with magical problems of insignificance.

What is the motivation for a magician, if they don’t believe in a Narnia-like goodness, with Aslan to reassure in times of doubt? What if they don’t have the slightly narrow-minded pluckiness of Harry Potter and his buddies, ever fighting the good fight?

In The Magicians, the secret for genuine success as a magician is a difficult combination, and there seem to be as many who fail as those who succeed. Magic is tougher than it looks, especially for anyone who’s read the fantasy books — as have Quentin and his friends, as have we all — where stories fall into place, where plucky, good-hearted individuals wend their way through plots designed to challenge, motivate, and ultimately lead to success.

The “real world” of being a magician just isn’t so pat.

From The Magicians (p. 44):

“You don’t just wave a wand and yell some made-up Latin. There’s reasons why most people can’t do it.”

“Which are what?” Quentin asked.

“The reasons why most people can’t do magic? Well.” Eliot held up a long, thin finger. “One, it’s very hard, and they’re not smart enough. Two, it’s very hard, and they’re not obsessive and miserable enough to do all the work you have to do to do it right. Three, they lack the guidance and mentorship provided by the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. And four, they lack the tough, starchy moral fiber necessary to wield awesome magical energies calmly and responsibly.

“And five”—he stuck up his thumb—”some people have all that stuff and they still can’t do it. Nobody knows why. They say the words, wave their arms, and nothing happens. Poor bastards. But that’s not us. We’re the lucky ones. We have it, whatever it is.”

“I don’t know if I have the moral fiber one.”

“I don’t either. I think that one’s optional, actually.”

The moral-fiber part of the equation is the key to Grossman’s literary questioning of fantasy. What if it’s not all so clear?

Amazingly, he manages to let us inside the questioning, while not kicking away all of the parts of fantasy that we love so much.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)