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The dean of Brakebills University and this mysterious woman have a quick chat on a bench. There are big doings afoot. Magic ones. And these two seem to know how to help. It seems to involve a boy they have their eye on, and that is probably Quentin Coldwater. Quentin is a sad bear, who is on his way to Grad School at Yale, and has also just been released from a psychiatric hospital because he was terribly depressed about the direction his life would take.
Quentin is obsessed with a book series that takes place in a magical land called Fillory, and features some adventurous British siblings named the Chatwins: Rupert, who was wounded in the war; Jane, the family skeptic, and Martin; the adventurer. There are 5 of these books. Quentin has read them all. A lot.
Quentin's best friend is Julia, who is also going to grad school, and is worried about Quentin. Also, it's possible Quentin has a giant crush on her. When the two of them swing by a fancy house for a grad school interview, the place has a clock that looks just like the one from Fillory! No time to marvel at that, though, because the person they were going to meet is dead. The paramedic who comes to take the body away is a gorgeous British lady who looks not unlike the woman from the bench who was talking to the dean. Before Quentin leaves, the paramedic hands him an envelope. And in it, is an unprinted 1952 Fillory book. The sixth in the series.
As they walk home separately, Quentin and Julia find themselves ending up on the lawn of a gorgeous college campus. Quentin meets Eliot, who tells him he is at Brakebills University and that he's here to take a preliminary exam for entry into the graduate program. The test is about to begin and they have to hurry. It turns out; Julia doesn't pass the written exam. And is sent home by one of the teachers. He gives her a magical alibi for her missing time and wipes her memory clean so she'll forget the experience but she cuts her arm so that she'll remember the incident.
Quentin HAS passed the test and is brought before a board of teachers, where in a fit of anger, he produces a magical house of cards. They let him into the school, and Dean Fogg tells him that the paramedic who gave him the novel is a "freelance scout" for the school. Magicians are real and this is just a place for them to learn. The Dean's last condition of entry is that Quentin stop taking anti-depressants and he has to say yes right away. There's no question – Quentin signs.
Quentin returns to his room to find his Fillory novel missing, and he also meets his roommate, a dude named Penny. Eliot introduces Quentin to Margo, and the three of them waltz off to tour the school. Here, Quentin learns that the entire third year class went away as a group of 20 and only 4 came back. And then, Margo mentions that Quentin should "Stay on the garden path." Here's the thing about that…
Throughout all of this, Quentin has been having dreams about Fillory. Or possibly he's actually going TO Fillory; it's hard to tell. In one of them, Quentin is facing one of the clocktrees as Jane Chatwin tells him that time is difficult magic and that he'll die if he "stays on the garden path." Later, through a door in the library, Quentin finds himself back in Fillory, speaking with Jane Chatwin again, who definitely wants him to leave Brakebills. She wants him to start learning how to fight with magic. When the dream is over, he finds a mark burned into his hand. Gang, what's up with Fillory? And the garden path?
Meanwhile, you know who's not doing great? Julia. She's been searching for magic things on the Internet, and when James, Julia's boyfriend, tells Quentin to come to her birthday party, she tells him she remembers Brakebills and wants in. Quentin, however, refuses to help her because he doesn't want to get kicked out. Later, Julia has a tricky time in the bathroom when a magician turns up, sexually aggresses her and then says he was just trying to make sure she was really magic. Looks like she has found her way in to the world of mysticism... just not through the University.
After one of his trips to Fillory, Quentin's hand is burned with a symbol that he's previously seen in a book that belongs to Alice. Now, she's basically a Hitchcock blond. You know, a blond who wears glasses but is gorgeous. She has been researching how to contact the "other side." And it turns out; Quentin, Penny and his girlfriend Kady all end up in the same place, boiling together a potion – all trying to get to the bottom of something. Alice wants to see if she can contact her brother, who died at Brakebills several years earlier, Quentin wants to know what's going on with the "Garden Path" and Penny and Kady just seem like they're in it for kicks.
The spell doesn't seem to work. That is, until the next day, when during a boring class on metals: time stops, everyone is frozen, and a creepy shuffling man turns up, his face obscured by giant moths. When Dean Fogg tries to intervene, the man (called The Beast) plucks out Dean Fogg's eyes. Then, the beast leans down, looks at Quentin and says, "Quentin Coldwater, there you are." So far, Quentin's time at Brakebills is off to a tough start, team.