High fantasy is having something of a moment on television. Game of Thrones is the biggest and most obvious example, but shows like Vampire Diaries, its Originals spin-off, Once Upon a Time, Grimm, and the somehow-still-running Supernatural have made the genre increasingly visible. SyFy’s current bid for a conversation-worthy bite of this apple is its adaptation of The Magicians, Lev Grossman’s New York Times bestselling novel about a young man who attends a magical school and struggles to defeat a world-threatening Big Bad.

If this premise sounds familiar, you wouldn’t be the first person to feel a sense of wizardly déjà vu. The books, especially the first in the trilogy, have been frequently described as “adult Harry Potter,” an assessment that is both understandable and catchy. While that meme-ified judgment of Grossman’s books is seriously reductionist, it’s also a useful way of thinking about just how tricky it’s going to be to get this adaptation right. So before the pilot’s launch on Wednesday night—and ahead of the series’ official January 2016 premiere—we got to the bottom of our “the book is always better” bias one kind of question in mind. What kind of magic are we in for?

The un-Harry Potter

The Magicians is less “adult Harry Potter” than it is an “un-Harry.” In his protagonist Quentin Coldwater, in the magical education Quentin receives, and in the foundational structure of the series, Grossman carefully and meticulously smashes the lovely, sparkly romanticism of the Harry Potter story to pieces. Brakebills, the Magicians universe’s Hogwarts equivalent, is a frustrating and demanding place. Quentin is stuck for endless, mind-numbling hours working on rote memorization in order to master the fickle language of magic in his universe. The book is full of passages like this: “The room was the same, and the days were always, always, always the same: empty, relentless, interminable wastelands of repetition.”

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