Like a pair of hands cup water, each generation's portal-fantasies frame the heart of the day. Alice in Wonderland scooped up a handful of Victorian propriety and served it to us, with a great helping of poetic absurdity, on a fine silver platter. The Wizard of Oz gave us the hard-won optimism of the Dust Bowl Depression on a fine china plate. A Wrinkle in Time packaged up the fear of Communism and the unknowable darkness of the Cold War in an avocado-colored box of quaint Americana.
Lev Grossman's Magician series is a fantasy mainstay that cups the low-latency, jaded, disaffected heart of the 21st century in its pale pink hands in that same timeworn fashion. Instead of quirky Space-Race kids in unironic Christmas sweaters or no-nonsense demi-adults in hoop skirts, Grossman's disillusioned middle-class boomerangers crawl out of a primordial sea of wine and, through the gauntlet of the narrative, cast off the caul of grublike vulnerability so endemic to youth today. Point-of-view chapters shift voice on the fly: smooth, lean-written description from the increasingly stoic Quentin leapfrogs with terse, impatient prose from the snarky and driven Janet, peppered with Internet terminology like "WTF" and "lulz".
In much the same way Dorothy Gail was forced to trust and rely on others, and Meg Murry was led to believe in herself and treasure her own uniqueness, and Alice came to walk to her own beat and not take life so seriously, Quentin Coldwater's directionless woe-is-me naivete is burned away by the crucible of heartache until nothing is left but a Grown-Ass Man who is leagues distant from the put-upon manchild where he started the series. And the entire thing plays out on a stage that should be realistic but isn't--a flesh-and-blood fantasy world that, by dint of modern pragmatism, is made into a stage arrayed with elaborately-painted scenery. It makes no attempt to validate the silliness of Fillory and simply revels in it, a self-referential conveyance that acknowledges its own storybook heritage with the numbness of a group of friends playing World of Warcraft. That, to me, serves up today's unfeeling brand of face-value wonder. Like those that came before it, the Magician series holds up a mirror to the 21st century, but lo and behold, we the jaded have no reflection at all.
And that's the most satisfying thing, to find a morality tale with no moral, a journey-more-important-than-the-destination story where we, as the reader, only bear witness to the events that catalyze Quentin. We are excluded from the lesson just this time, but we get to see its effects. For a nice change, someone else has to take a sip of that deep cool water of learning, and we get to see the smile of a lesson learned dawn on their face.