There's an easy way to describe Lev Grossman's book The Magicians: It's like Harry Potter for adults, and there's basically a Narnia equivalent in there too.
It may be a bit reductive, but that sentence also describes the Syfy TV adaptation of the same name, which has the potential to be a pretty good show despite a somewhat uneven pilot. The first two episodes, at least, have us interested in seeing more.
The Magicians focuses primarily on Quentin, a soon-to-be graduate student who's a bit of a loner, is slow to grow up and, surprise, is soon told that he actually possesses magic. So he's whisked away to a secret school in Upstate New York that non-magical people don't know about where he can learn everything there is to know about casting spells. Stop me if you've heard at least some of that before.
But The Magicians has a "grown up" quality (a harsher sense of reality, in a way) to it that works to the show's favor. Brakebills University is no Hogwarts. Some of the students drink, some curse, some have sex, some do drugs, some steal. While you'll find young magicians grouped into cliques (for example, the "Physical Kids") there is no group that is inherently evil or brave or smart. Everybody the show introduces us to seems flawed and complex.
When we first meet Quentin, for example, he's in a hospital getting a mental health checkup. He's not a carefree kid ready to tackle the world and experience adventure -- he's a young adult on medication for depression and unwilling to let go of his love for a fantasy book series, despite the urging of his friend.
The book series in question, Filory and Further, is (as the first installment itself says) "no mere children's tale." Quentin grew up fascinated with the five-book saga of the Chatwin children, who find an otherworldly doorway in a grandfather clock while exploring a strange house. That doorway leads them to Filory, a magical land that needs them more than they needed it. (Again, sound at least vaguely familiar?)
In a roundabout way it's the Filory stories that lead Quentin to Brakebills University, and once he's there and realizes that magic is real, it begs the question of whether or not Filory could be real too ... and if everything that comes out of it would be the stuff of lighthearted fairy tales.
And then there's Julia. While Quentin is off learning magic (and potentially unleashing a horrible beast upon his school) his childhood friend his dealing with rejection. She, too, found her way to Brakebills, but she failed the entrance exam. That happens sometimes, she's told, and rejects are sent home with an alibi and a wiped memory, never knowing what magical future they could have had.
But Julia remembers. Haunted by the knowledge that she has some magic in her yet can't go to school to learn about it, she turns to other, potentially much more dangerous ways of learning how to control her powers. Throughout the show (or at least its first two episodes) we see Quentin and Julia on very separate paths that may or may not collide with disastrous results somewhere along the line.
If that sounds like a lot to process, it is. The first episode of The Magicians throws a lot at you in less than an hour. More than half a dozen key characters are introduced, including the shy, Hermoine-like Alice, the tough-looking maybe-mind-reader Penny and the party-loving Eliot and Margo. You learn about secret magical places that are real, other secret magical places that might be real, and places that are definitely real but are secretly magical.
One minute you're getting a short and quick introduction to a character and the next minute Quentin is performing a seance with her for reasons that aren't super clear. We're briefly shown the remnants of a Brakebills class that has mostly disappeared, leaving some very broken-looking young magicians behind with no explanation for why. And during a short vision that might also be a visit to Filory itself, Quentin is more or less told that following all the rules at his school will get him killed.
Everything happens quickly, yet the episode itself feels slow to get moving.
But at the end of that first episode is an "oh snap" moment -- an introduction of a villain that's both mysterious and terrifying. It's enough to make you want to see what happens during the show's next hour, and episode two manages to find a more agreeable pace.
There's an interesting world here filled with interesting characters (as proven by the book trilogy the series is based on, which is well worth a read). As long as the show can take the time to respect those things rather than rush from plot point to plot point it can be special in its own way.
You can watch the pilot for free online right now, or you can catch both it and its follow-up on January 25.