I love magic. I mean, who doesn’t? Sad, lonely people that’s who.
I love the magicians in real life who make cars pop out of nowhere or guess your card or find convenient change behind your ear. And I love the magicians that exist in books: wands, spells, potions, incantations. I love all that shit. Yet, it’s getting harder to find age-appropriate stories (books, movies, whatever) about magic. I can’t just read “Harry Potter” and “Young Wizards” forever. I mean, I could. But I shouldn’t have to.
So, I set out on a quest to find not just magical books, but magical books for grownups.
Do such books exist? Let’s take a look.
“The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern
Arguably one of the best books I’ve read in years. Come for the mysterious travelling circus of dreams and stay for the clash between love and magic. Celia and Marco are locked in a fierce magic competition, each one summoning greater and more elaborate spectacles for a public audience: a living carousel, an ice-forged forest, and other fantastic illusions. The contest is set against the backdrop of a black and white circus, where the popcorn is always fresh, performers fold themselves into origami-like shapes, and the fortune teller is always right.
What sets it apart: While the theme of forbidden love is the main event of the novel, I find it a little overdone in fiction. What really set this novel apart for me was another theme: skill vs talent.
Celia has inherited her powers from her father, an arrogant magician. While she calls herself an illusionist, Celia’s powers mimic telekinesis and telepathy. As a young girl, she can break tea cups with a glance. As a young woman, she gains the ability to mend broken things, inorganic or organic alike, though living things are more complicated. Marco, an orphan, was chosen by his teacher and learns magic through hard work and study. As a mature illusionist, he is able to weave entire worlds from nothing but strands of air. The competition between them, and its ultimate conclusion, show that while skill or talent will take you far, both are required to truly achieve greatness.
“The Illusionists” by Rosie Thomas
In this atmospheric novel, the Devil comes to London. Or, at least, a Devil. He joins a company with an adroit dwarf, Carlo, whose skill at carpentry and theatrics may set Devil free at last. He longs to be free from his nightmares, and from his past. But when Devil meets the self-reliant Eliza, the fiery remains of his boyhood threaten to invade his new life. Eliza works with Devil and Carlo, keeping peace between the cantankerous friends. Soon, the three open up their own theatre, and begin putting on ever grander illusions: apparently beheading actors, lifting with a finger what grown men could not lift together, and even catching bullets. Eventually, their exploits become infamous and performers from all over the world audition to be in their show.
One of these performers is an artistic engineer. A masterful puppeteer, this man is wealthy in his own right and finances many of their efforts. However, his interest in magical theater is overshadowed by his love for his automatons. And his interest in Eliza soon becomes unsettling.
What sets it apart: There are bunch of novels set in Victorian-era London for some reason. I guess it seems like an easy way to create a story’s setting. Initially, this put me off, but I’m glad I gave Thomas’ book a chance.
What really works in this book for me is the relationship between Devil and Carlo. These are two men who seemingly can’t stand each other. Yet they open up a theatre together and become business partners, entwining their lives together. The success of one is the success of the other. Carlo, in particular, is a powerful character. He’s always the outsider, even in a world of outsiders. His co-workers might be able to swallow swords, breathe fire, and dance with dolls, but, as regular-sized people, they can blend in whenever they want. Carlo doesn’t have that luxury. It makes his character’s fate much more poignant.
“The Magicians” by Lev Grossman
Just imagine those kids from “The Chronicles of Narnia” going back to Narnia as adults. Then imagine a bunch of murder, sadness, and cannibalism. That’s pretty much “The Magicians.”
Quentin stumbles into a world of actual magic–and immediately has to take an entrance exam in order to stay at the exclusive magic college. But this isn’t anything like Hogwarts. Quentin’s days are filled with flexing his fingers into impossible shapes, learning Latin and Aramaic (and other ancient languages), memorizing the movements of celestial bodies, and stripping naked so he can turn into a goose and fly to the south pole.
So just like a real college.
Quentin loves magic as much as anybody and he owes that affection to a series of children’s novels, a series that mimics C.S. Lewis’ famous work. Only, this fictional story (inside Grossman’s fictional story) is incomplete, ending with one of the young siblings gone missing, never to return. As it turns out, though, Quentin’s magical world has been hiding a deep, dark secret. He must swim through other worlds to bring that secret to the surface.
What sets it apart: “The Magicians” is one of those books that features nothing about any of my experiences and, yet, manages to completely capture what my life is about. It would’ve been very easy for Grossman to turn his novel into a magical version of “A Catcher in the Rye,” but he dutifully resists. Instead, we see Quentin struggle–not because he lacks anything, but because he lacks nothing. His hard work pays off, he finishes school, gets good grades…then everything fizzles out. In school he was special, one of the select few among the select few. In the real world, though, he has trouble finding meaning in things. While he comes off as whiny sometimes, I feel that Quentin really captures the essence of being a millennial. If you want to see this book brought to life, SyFy is coming out with a series early next year.
“A Darker Shade of Magic” by V.E. Schwab
This novel isn’t just set in one Victorian-era London, but in three: the Red, the Grey, and the White. There was once a fourth London, but pure magic has taken root there, infecting and destroying everything in its path. Kell, a Traveler who can go between these Londons, lives in the Red. He has a special affinity for magic one that is both feared and coveted. As a member of the royal family, he has extra special status. But Kell also suffers from a vice: he’s something of a smuggler. Normally, it’s just small things. A token here, a button there. Occasionally, he’ll take something larger from one London and bring it home.
However, when White London begins its attack on the Red, Kell brings home an actual, living person from the Grey London. She’s a thief who’s wanted nothing more than to leave her grey world behind. But in a world of red and white, she may have gotten more than she bargained for.
What sets it apart: While many books set up rules for magic, those rules can sometimes be inconsistent. Schwab shows the reader what happens when magic is left to run wild. It can destroy people, animals, worlds, and even entire dimensions. In this world, magic is like a furnace. The Black London sat too close. The White London sits burning next to it. The Red is just far enough to be unharmed and close enough to reap the benefits. And the Grey London is a world of magic gone cold. There are rules upon rules for how spells can be performed and I found the consistency both frustrating and delightful. Frustrating because they made it harder for Kell to save the day and delightful for the same reason.
I love magic. I love reading about characters escaping their worlds because it allows me to escape my own, to live an adventure I could never have and see worlds I can’t even imagine. I like the feeling of being surprised by a magic trick. I always lean forward in my seat, wondering what might be behind the curtain.