The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman
The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman, is a superb finish to what is one of my favorite fantasy series of all time. I read it elated, skin tingling and brain buzzing, savoring every word to make it last longer. When I finished, I wanted to read it again immediately. And yet, I also finished the book feeling a persistent ambivalence about the conclusion Grossman has created for his characters.
In The Magician’s Land, Quentin Coldwater, the protagonist, has grown up; he’s thirty now, twelve years older than when we first met him in The Magicians. Having been ejected from Fillory, the magical land of his childhood dreams, he is now a junior professor at his old school, Brakebills, and has found his specialty: mending small things. In all ways his life is more mundane and limited than he’d imagined when he was younger, as if, as Grossman puts it, life had “briskly and efficiently stripp[ed] Quentin of his last delusions about himself.” But surprisingly, Quentin seems okay with this. He’s not the angsty, moody teen for whom even magic falls flat. He’s developed a work ethic and is more stable, more humble, more at peace than ever.
We also meet Plum Darby, a wickedly smart senior at Brakebills. After endangering the entire school with a prank-gone-wrong, she is expelled from the school. Quentin is caught in the crossfire and also loses his job. To make some money, Quentin and Plum take a magical heist job. The target is an old suitcase filled with objects that used to belong to the Chatwins, the original Fillory kids. What’s inside the suitcase is precious and earth-shaking. It will test Quentin and Plum to their magical limits. And it will save Fillory, which is about to die.
As usual, Grossman’s writing is sharp, funny, and precise. He describes the sound of cars on a wet road “like long strips of paper tearing” and moons “like stray marbles.” His characters talk like real people, not like volunteers at a Renaissance Faire. They reference Harry Potter, Star Trek, and Steppenwolf songs. And his narrative voice is so colloquial that it sounds, at times, like the voice of a smart blogger — the kind of witty self-referential voice that thrives on the Internet. “[Fairies] went along with it for the same reason that fairies ever did anything, namely, for the lulz.”
And the characters are deep, their struggles real, and their personalities are fun to spend time with. We get more backstory and development of both Eliot and Janet, the series’ snarky best friends. Janet’s story particularly resonated with the other strong, troubled women that Grossman has created; like Janet and Alice, she has her own trauma and rage to work out. We also meet Plum, who might be my favorite character. She’s smart, mischievous, and motivated. She loves Brakebills and magic the way Quentin did — thoroughly, unironically. At the same time, she is a descendent of the Chatwins, a legendary inheritance which haunts her. She worries about the potential taint of “Chatwinity,” wondering if Fillory will destroy her the way it destroyed her ancestors.
My ambivalence about the conclusion The Magician’s Land springs from my reading of the first two books. When I first picked up The Magicians, it was like nothing I’d ever read before—not satire or parody, but a full-throated rejection of some of the tropes of fantasy that I’d taken for granted. I thought Grossman’s project was a deflating of most fantasy literature, taking the wind out of its sails, showing it to be bloated and saccharine. Even while I rooted for the characters, I reveled in their angst and unhappy endings. To some extent, I saw the books as punishment for my escapist reading habits, and a tiny masochistic part of my brain liked it. There was no Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time; magic itself (the thing I sought when I read fantasy) was shown to be only as fulfilling as the person encountering it.
And, in part, that idea is borne out by The Magician’s Land. Quentin deals with both the death of his father and the death of a god. After his father’s death, his magic becomes stronger. He realizes that “he was truly alone in the world now, no one was coming to help him. He would have to help himself.” As opposed to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, there is no wise parental divinity in THE MAGICIANS series; the gods are as messed up as the people. It reminds me, in some ways, of Harry’s response after Dumbledore’s death in the HARRY POTTER series (a comparison Grossman deliberately courts). In the absence of a mentor or a parent, both Quentin and Harry pick themselves up and do the work set before them.
But, unlike with J.K. Rowling, with Grossman I never expected a happy ending. Not that Grossman’s ending is unambiguously happy; there’s no Nineteen Years Later. But it is pretty happy and when I read it, it changed what I thought these books were about. Now I think they’re about earning your happy ending. Because Quentin earns his. He grows up, he learns from his mistakes, and he applies himself. In one passage, he asks Plum “What do you think magic is for?”
I used to think about this a lot,” Quentin said. “I mean, it’s not obvious like it is in books . . . In books there’s always somebody standing by ready to say Hey, the worlds in danger, evil’s on the rise, but if you’re really quick and take this ring and put it in that volcano over there, everything will be fine. But in real life, that guy never turns up. In our world, no one ever knows what to do . . . You’ll never know if you put the ring in the right volcano, or if things might have gone better if you hadn’t. There’s no answers in the back of the book.
Quentin ends by saying that he doesn’t know what magic is for, but he knows that “it’s not for sitting on my ass.” He works hard at magic now, not to impress a girl or prove himself, but because magic is for making something big and beautiful. And whether or not the characters live happily ever after, Grossman has done exactly that.
Update: I listened to a couple hours of this book on audio, and wanted to review that as well. The audio was read beautifully by Mark Bramhall, whose deep American voice added some gravitas to the story. Despite his distinctive sound, Bramhall was especially gifted at doing character voices, which added a lot to his narration. The only quibble I have with the audiobook isn’t Bramhall’s fault; it’s just his casting in general (or perhaps my perception of it; I’m willing to accept the label of ageist here). His normal, non-dialogue voice sounds like a middle-aged (or older) man, which conflicted oddly with the very modern, Internet-savvy voice Grossman has cultivated. Lines in the narration like, “Shit was getting geological, yo,” just seem to cry out for a younger-sounding voice. Still, Bramhall understands Grossman’s writing and his reading is well worth a listen, even if unintentionally funny at times.
I didn’t immediately fall for Lev Grossman’s MAGICIANS trilogy. The first book, The Magicians, I thought had a lot of potential, was smartly written and was doing interesting things with the fantasy genre, but its problems in pacing and balance were a distraction, and, I confess, my frequent dislike for the main character Quentin Coldwater, also kept me from fully embracing the novel. Those problems disappeared in the follow-up, The Magician King, which I listed in my top ten fantasies of that year. Now Grossman is out with the final volume — The Magician’s Land. I don’t know if it is as strong as The Magician King, but if not, the difference is slight. Even better, The Magician’s Land not only satisfactorily concludes the story, but in the mark of all excellent series, makes me want to go back and reread the trilogy in one uninterrupted go.
The story begins with Quentin, now thirty (i.e., “old” to him), forced into doing some freelance, not quite legal magic work thanks to having been exiled from both the magical land of Fillory and the magical school of Brakebills (this will make more sense if you’ve read books one and two, which is definitely required). Also involved in the job is Plum, also a former student of Brakebills, though much more recent than Quentin. The job, as one might expect for an event so early in the book, doesn’t exactly go perfectly, and so Quentin and Plum are set on a new story path as a consequence. These scenes are interspersed with flashbacks showing just why the two of them are no longer at Brakebills. Meanwhile, in Fillory, Quentin’s friends, Elliot and Janet, the current kings and queens of the land, are faced with Fillory’s ending and are on their own quest to stop the impending apocalypse. Again, as one would expect, the two quests eventually merge.
There are a few niggling weaknesses early on — the big job feels a bit contrived, as does the way in which a particular spell falls into Quentin’s hands (almost literally), but these were minor nitpicks and soon over and done with. Beyond that, the novel was a seamless run of intelligent plotting, with several unforeseen shifts/revelations; well-versed exploration of fantasy tropes and playful allusions to other works (the most obvious being Fillory’s prophesied end-of-the-world sounding similar to what happens to Narnia in the The Last Battle); and rich, in-depth characterization.
I’ve already mentioned how hard it is to like Quentin in the first book, a deliberate result of Grossman’s characterization, which is risky to say the least. But one can see how necessary that characterization is — of a self-focused, shallow, inexperienced, angst-ridden (despite having a life many of us wouldn’t mind) adolescent and 20-some-year old — if one is to fully appreciate the slow maturation process that eventually, and realistically, develops over the course of the three novels. In too many novels, especially YA (and this is not at all YA), that “growth” happens over the course of a few months or maybe a year or two thanks to the protagonist being forced into some sort of stressful (often oppressive) situation. Magically (no pun intended. Well, maybe a little), they find their internal fortitude and hidden maturity and voilà — instant adult/hero. That isn’t the case here. It may be a sad commentary, but it’s also very true than many adolescents don’t mature situationally; nor are they noticeably more mature at 19 than they were at 18. Or more mature at 23, 25, or even 27. No, it’s sad but true that 30 very often is that point at which age and the world have combined to shape a young person into a no-longer-so-young wiser person. And Grossman does an excellent and insightful job of showing that with regard to Quentin, a maturation with all its requisite screw ups and backslides and idiotic statements and actions.
We see this in several ways, some via action in comparing what this Quentin does to what an earlier one had done, and sometimes via Quentin’s interior monologue. We can see a microcosm of Quentin’s trilogy-spanning growth in the following three quotes from The Magician’s Land. Here he is early on, thinking on Fillory:
He thought of everything that was happening there without him, the journeys and adventures and feast and all the various magical wonders… and he wanted to be there so badly that it felt like his desire should be enough to physically pull him out of his flat hard bed, out of this world, and into the one he belonged in. But it wasn’t, and it didn’t.
That feeling leads to his self-isolation at Brakebills. But slowly, things change. Here he begins to settle into his “mundane” job (teaching magic being relatively mundane to questing in a magical land) and learns what his true discipline is:
He wouldn’t be striding between dimensions, or calling down thunderbolts, or manifesting patroni…. Life was briskly and efficiently stripping Quentin of his last delusions about himself. But it wasn’t going to kill him. It wasn’t sexy, but it was real… [He] though he’d find teaching satisfying, but he didn’t expect to actually enjoy it.
This was Quentin’s world now, and it was amazing to him how quickly he came to accept it… You couldn’t mourn forever… He realized he’d lost his old double vision, the one that was always looking for something more, somewhere else, the world behind the world… He was becoming someone else, someone new.
This “becoming” is one of the major themes of the series, and we see it not only in Quentin, but in Plum, in Julia, in Elliot, in Janett, and others. But, as is usually the case in reality, it rarely happens without sacrifice. On a plot level, we’ve seen, and see again, the idea that sacrifice can bring power, especially magic power: Julia’s horrific sacrifice at the end of book one, Alice’s at the end of book one, and that idea if further explored in The Magician’s Land. But on another level, this can be read as personal power, the power of identity, of becoming who one is, and there again inevitable sacrifice is woven into the journey — the loss of youthful innocence, the inevitable loss of one’s parents (a plot point that here appears briefly but to great emotional effect as well as having long-lasting ripples). These are the mundane sacrifices impossible to avoid.
Grossman’s use of fantasy tropes appears sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly, sometimes seriously, sometimes playfully (note the patronus reference above). At one point he explains Elliot’s reluctance to kill his enemies as,
This wasn’t Tolkien — these weren’t orcs and trolls and giant spiders… evil creatures you were free to commit genocide on without any complicated moral ramifications. Orcs didn’t have wives and kids and backstories.
Later on, Quentin tells Plum,
I books there’s always somebody standing by ready to say “hey, the world’s in danger, evil’s on the rise, but if you’re really quick and take this ring and put it in that volcano over there everything will be fine.” But in real life that guy never turns up… He’s busy handing out advice the next universe over…
I could go on. I could talk about Grossman’s vivid and often original prose, the wonderful creations he brings to life in Fillory, the way transformation works its way into the that theme of becoming and sacrifice as shown in a beautiful scene involving a pair of whales or more horrifically in what happens to some characters. I didn’t even touch upon the wonderful characterization of Janet, who has one of the most compelling monologues in the book. If I weren’t worried about spoilers, I could detail the ways in which Grossman ties so tightly together (but not “neatly”) the many strands of the entire series.
But this review is already longer than it needs to be (basically it says “read this trilogy” or maybe a little longer, “read the trilogy even if you don’t love the first book”). Plus, I need to go back to The Magicians and start again…
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise about The Magician’s Land, the third installment in Lev Grossman’s MAGICIANS trilogy is its map. The first two books, which I read on a Kindle, didn’t have maps. This one did, and it’s great.
What I like about this map, entitled “The Worlds of Quentin Coldwater,” is that it’s not actually very cartographic. It lacks a legend, it does not show Fillory from the point of view of a flying dragon, and it does not list countries. In other words, the world has not been limited, so there’s plenty of room for imagination and exploration. A careful study of the map will reveal very little about which lands our heroes will visit or what will happen to them there.
And it’s a fitting introduction to The Magician’s Land.
The Magician’s Land opens with two quests, one new and one already used in this series.
- It’s a drizzling March evening off the New Jersey Turnpike, so we know right away that Quentin’s been having a hard time since he was kicked out of Fillory at the end of The Magician King. Quentin is 30 now, and he’s feeling his age, especially in his lower back. An exiled king, Quentin needs money, so he decides to earn it by joining a heist. (Pretty cool)
- Eliot is the High King of Fillory and he has just defeated an army of Vikings championed by the Vile Father (“VF” for short). Eliot conquers the army easily, only to learn that they were symptomatic of a larger problem: Fillory is dying (again).
But, like our map, these quests only loosely provide a structure for the plot. Lev Grossman has a knack for tying his characters into epic conflicts that lend a sense of urgency to the narrative, particularly in these last two novels, but these first two objectives feel more like a good excuse to get the band back together for one last tour of “The Worlds of Quentin Coldwater.”
Quentin and Eliot do spend a lot of time with old friends, long gone, including the Chatwins, the Questing Beast, and even Mayakovski. At first, I worried that this was going to be a nostalgia tour, but then I realized it was actually just a great way to fill the story with side quests and diversions like whales, the libraries of the Neitherlands, Janet’s desert quest, and there’s even a haunted mirror world.
It seems that by giving the journey priority over the destination, Grossman was able to create room to breathe in this novel and in Quentin’s many worlds. When I finished The Magician’s Land, I was really sad that the series seems to have ended. It seemed that there were so many things left to do and to see.
Perhaps that’s the best way to end a trilogy.
May contain spoilers for The Magicians and The Magician King
When we first met Quentin in The Magicians, he had it all: he’d graduated from the magical college of Brakebills, he was with Alice (kind and lovely and talented Alice), and he’d managed to get into the magical land of Fillory. He was also an insufferable asshole. Now, in the final instalment of Grossman’s MAGICIANS trilogy, Quentin has pretty much hit rock bottom. Not only has he been exiled from Fillory, but also from Brakebills, where he’d held a post as professor. Yet strangely he is at his most likeable and noble yet. The Magician’s Land will tie the loose ends of Quentin’s tale as he finally figures out what he believes is worth fighting for.
The story opens in a bookshop. Quentin has managed to get himself involved in a magical heist run by a talking crow. A handful of shady other magicians have also been summoned by the crow: anti-Brakebills types that have fallen through the cracks. Amongst them is Plum, ex-student of Brakebills, whose expulsion is somehow tied up with Quentin’s own rejection from the college. The crow tells them they need to retrieve a mysterious suitcase guarded by the powerful and enigmatic Couple (with a capital C), putting Quentin nicely on track to completing his first quest (for if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the sequels, it’s that Quentin is only satisfied when he has a quest).
Meanwhile, another quest is taking place, this time in Fillory. Eliot, Janet, et al find themselves in trouble: Fillory is dying, one clock-tree at a time. Josh and Poppy, blissfully wed, are with child, leaving Eliot and Janet to ride out and find a solution to the end of the world.
Grossman spins his tale with elegance and skill, and readers will soon wonder if these plot threads aren’t all connected in some way. After an unsuccessful run-in with the Couple and some rogue magical extremists, the crow goes AWOL and Quentin and Plum are left to knuckle down and recuperate. It becomes clear what Quentin has been wanting to do all along: find Alice, and we realise he has come a million miles from that cynical, underwhelmed teenager we first met. He is finally getting his priorities straight and all we can do is hope it’s not too late.
It’s rare that a trilogy keeps getting better and better like this. The Magician King surprised me: I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did. The Magician’s Land goes one step further. It’s a triumph from start to finish, largely due to Quentin’s own development across the series. He is complex and compulsive and is finally, finally sorting his shit out. The relationships he forges in this novel (both old and new) are moving and hilarious in equal measure, no easy feat for an author.
Another surprise was Janet. Janet’s always been around with her sass and her attitude, but we’ve never really seen much more depth to her than that. As Grossman succinctly puts it: “not even the end of the world was going to stop Janet from being a bitch. It was the principle of the thing.” But we learn there is much, much more to Janet’s character than meets the eye, and she really comes into her own.
Every character does in fact, which is what makes The Magician’s Land such an intense and moving read. If it’s not the characters driving you on, Grossman’s prose will be. He has conjured the rare beast: the trilogy that just gets better and better.
I read book one and didn’t really care for it, yet the reviews of books two and three have been so amazing that I might just have to give this series another look.
Me, too, I guess. Thanks, Kate!
What about “if you disliked the first book and hated the bit of the second you managed to get through before throwing it against the wall”? But I recommended it to my daughter who does love the other two.
Did I miss something? What happened to Josh’s $100 Million and the palazzo? (From the end of book 2.) Didn’t Josh say Q could have it? If so we really don’t need the heist – or do we?