Magic. What is it anyway? Is it a miracle, a wonder, to be had with the snap of fingers, the flick of a wand? Is it alchemy, a transforming power, or an elemental or mathematical equation we’ve yet to discover? Could it be metaphysical, mythological?
Sometimes I read books with magical happenings that leave me dissatisfied with the world-building and explanation of how the magic works. Other times, I romp with the author through a made-up land that feels real and plausible.
This notion of suspending disbelief is said to originate with Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 with the publication of biographical sketches of his literary life. He wrote, rather wordily,: “In this idea originated the plan of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”
In other words, get real.
How to do that? The characters must be as real as your annoying little sister or last boyfriend. Lovable but flawed, and that doesn’t mean they bite their fingernails or trip over their feet all the time. It’s the deeper psychological and emotional stuff that makes the reader say, ‘I know that. I’ve seen it. I can relate.’ Then if the characters sprout wings, the reader already has them grounded in reality.
My reason for musing on this is Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIANS and THE MAGICIAN KING. These books are brilliant if you like smart-ass humor mixed with tragedy, which clearly I do. They pay homage to great fantasy stories of the past but with something of an attitude--a lot of wit and smarts. The characters are pretty much genius-level teens, who grow into young adulthood in the books.
Quentin is a math whiz and nerd who is fixated on a childhood fantasy series set in a land called Fillory, but once Quentin jumps down the rabbit hole he finds monsters come along with magic.
I don’t like to give spoilers, so I’m only going to say that Quentin’s character arc from the start of Book One to the end of Book Two is stunning. He isn’t just an angst-ridden teen who magically becomes a superhero. Rather, he remains annoyingly self-absorbed and flawed but increasingly stronger as though he’s been tempered by fire. Like a true hero, he makes huge sacrifices, but he’s no angel, just a human with a healthy conscience that he has to learn to use.
Quentin’s teen-age crush, Julia--whose only interest in him in book one seems to be to find out how she can get into the school of magic he attends but which rejected her—becomes equally weighted storywise in book two, which alternates between their POVs.
Julia, who already suffers emotional disorders, becomes obsessed with learning how to do magic. She discovers an underground of self-taught magicians where she rises to the top but not without paying terrible dues. As Grossman writes: Her magic had sharp, jagged edges on it that had never been filed down.
When Quentin and Julia intersect in book two worlds hang in the balance. Magic has brought them giddy pleasures and unfathomable loss and pain, but magic itself may go out of the world because of things they’ve done.
I like to give snippets to show writing style and since I love the attitude and voice I’ll give these.
If you’ve ever tried to listen to someone else’s description of their dream, here’s something from Julia’s POV: They pushed on into astrology and ocean magic and even oneiromancy—dream magic. Turns out you can cast some truly amazing shit in your dreams. But after you wake up it all seems kind of pointless, and nobody really wants to hear about it.
Here’s a great scene description from Quentin’s POV: The tide was out, and the sea was not so much calm as limp. Every few minutes it worked up enough energy for a wave that rose up half a foot and then flopped onto the strand with a startling smack, as if to remind everyone that it was still there.
Again, Quentin: He could have used someone stable to hang on to right now, but as it happened, through no particular fault of her own, Julia was not a person one could hang on to. She needed one of those warning decals that they put on airplane parts: NO STEP.