Where Do You Go After Harry Potter?
There's an odd sense of dislocation that afflicts two generations of readers: young adults and older teenagers who grew up reading Harry Potter, and parents who tagged along for the magical ride.
The journey ended a couple of years back, with the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (which I personally consider a triumph, though your mileage may vary). Since then, we've seen author J.K. Rowling deliver the commencement address at Harvard University — surely the death knell for any creative undertaking — and Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry in the movie adaptations, appear nude on stage in London. I don't think we're in Hogwarts anymore, Toto.
So where now? What do you read when what you want to read is more Harry Potter? It's a harder question than one might think. Yes, there are myriad other fantasies on the shelf, running through English literature all the way from Beowulf to Sookie Stackhouse. Yet there's something special about Harry Potter, something that meshes almost perfectly with the modern youthful imagination. Maybe C.S. Lewis's Narnia series had a similar effect on a certain generation of middle-class British youth — though with Harry Potter the appeal seems, if you will, more catholic.
Our collective dislocation was captured nicely in a cartoon somebody taped to the counter at the Rockport Public Library a year or two ago. A befuddled-looking middle-schooler stands in the middle of a library stacked high with books on every side, lamenting that there's nothing to read now that Harry Potter's over. The poor librarian stands before him, at a loss for words.
The joke here is obvious. Of course there are untold thousands of wonderful books — more books than we'll ever have time to read. But the cartoon kid has got a point, too, and one that we shouldn't trivialize. We need — many of us do, anyway — a bit of fantasy in our lives. I don't know why; it just seems to make the real world glow a little brighter. And really, why shouldn't there be a next stepping-stone in the path? Not more of the same — like Harry, we've had quite enough of Hogwarts, thank you — rather, something just as magical yet more grown-up.
Professional librarians, I'm sure, have fielded this general question at least 100 million times by now. It's not hard to guess the standard response. It might take the form of a list: Philip Pullman, J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Scott, Ursula K. LeGuin. For the more adventurous, Neil Gaimon, John Crowley, George R.R. Martin, Mervyn Peake. These are all wonderful writers, well worth investigating on their own merits. But for a reader on an exacting quest — what is the very next thing to read when you're done with Harry Potter? — they are, every one of them, off the mark. Some may be greater works of the imagination, but they lie on very different paths.
Here's what to read instead: The Magicians by Lev Grossman (Viking Books, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-670-02055-3).
I do not mean to diminish this book by saying it is highly derivative. The Magicians follows closely in the footsteps of Harry Potter — and also of the Narnia cycle — in roughly the way an experiment in, let's say, the physics of rare transuranium elements inevitably follows earlier experiments in the same field. The author's goal is explicitly not to discover brand-new, unmapped terrain, but to explore more deeply a landscape that until now we have glimpsed almost exclusively through the eyes of children.
We enter The Magicians right where we exited The Deathly Hallows — with a seventeen-year-old protagonist whose extraordinary magical ability sets him apart from his peers, overriding his general social nerdiness. But whereas Harry has just finished a journey from a somnolent suburb in Surry through an enchanted secondary school whose whereabouts are never specified, Quentin Coldwater is about to trade the dirty streets of Brooklyn for a magical college upstate, a few miles from West Point, overlooking the Hudson. There he will be introduced not only to magic but to sex and alcohol, avarice and betrayal, heroism and cowardice, and triumph and murder. He will most definitely come of age, and then some.
In The Magicians we follow Quentin and his associates — not all of them are friends — from a world that reminds us strongly of Hogwarts (albeit a Hogwarts with hangovers), via a thoroughly non-magical lower Manhattan, to a world strikingly evocative of Lewis's Narnia (albeit a Narnia with more than its fair share of monsters). There is some rough going here, and this is not a book for young children. But that's the point. This is the next thing. And it's good.