When I first read The Magicians, the phrase I (and so many others) used to describe it was "Harry Potter for grown ups." It's an odd descriptor in some ways, given that The Magicians in some ways has more Narnia in its DNA than Hogwarts, but there's really no denying that to no small degree, The Magicians feels like a response to the Potter series, taking the fun and adventure of that series and making you question if suddenly finding yourself in a world of magic would really be such a wonderful thing. The Magicians is an amazing book - it's frequently hilarious, always engaging, rich in its details, and features fascinating characters - but in some ways, it's nowhere near as fun as you might hope, and that's part of its greatness. In The Magicians, magic isn't a simple matter of waving a wand and knowing a faux Latin word; it's an intense amount of work, involving arcane study, rigorous practice, scientific knowledge, and more. And more than that, magic doesn't bring you into some wonderful world of wonders; instead, one of the running themes of The Magicians is that whoever you are? That's still you, no matter if you can now do magic or not. While Harry Potter found refuge from his horrible life in his magical world, Quentin (the protagonist of The Magicians) gets no such escape, realizing that he's still the same isolated, lonely, damaged person he was before he learned magic. In many ways, The Magicians is more of a coming-of-age story than an adventure story, despite the fact that it follows an adventure pattern (especially in the book's second half, which leaves behind the school setting for the unease of the post-college world); it's ultimately less about the quest and more about the characters coming to term with who they are, and dealing with the fact that their powers have incredible, devastating consequences and costs beyond what they ever expected. But there's so much more thatThe Magicians grapples with, from struggling to find a purpose for your life to dealing with the painful choices we all make to reconciling ourselves to our own worst impulses. That it does all of that so well while still telling a fantastic, engaging, astonishing story about magic and magicians is only testament to what an incredible accomplishment this book is.
When I first read The Magician King on its release, I commented that I thought the book was superb, but that it didn't really interweave its theme throughout the text as seamlessly as The Magicians did. But a re-read has proved me wrong, because the main thrust of The Magician King - the costs we must pay to make our dreams come true - is evident from almost the first page. True, the book doesn't make the full costs evident until the final two chapters, which are devastating, but the idea comes up again and again, and not just in the two main characters. Yes, two; while The Magicians was Quentin's story,The Magician King also fills us in on what happened to Quentin's friend Julia in between her sitting for the Brakebills exam and her appearance at the end of the first book. So while Quentin spends The Magician King on a magical quest to save Fillory, Grossman interweaves it with flashbacks to Julia's own quest to learn magic and the toll it took on her. It makes for a compelling pair of stories, as Quentin's provides the adventure while Julia's gives the book an emotional heft, but for much of the book, it seems like just a solid narrative hook. But as the book continues, Grossman's theme becomes more and more explicitly clear, as both protagonists are forced to give more and more of themselves, push themselves in new and painful ways, and ultimately have to question whether their dream is worth what they've become. All of that makes The Magician King a fascinating counterpart to The Magicians, with its questioning of whether a dream can truly change your life, and it's to Grossman's credit thatThe Magician King doesn't feel like a regurgitation or rehashing of the original. Instead, Quentin's story allows Grossman to explore the magical world of Fillory and create a Narnia pastiche, Julia's story allows him to explore his mythology more deeply and expand our view of his world, and the book's ideas and themes tie it all together, creating something truly beautiful. The final volume in the trilogy comes out in just a few days, and I'm equal parts excited (to see how it all ends) and saddened (that there will be no more) - and I don't think there's a more telling reaction than that.
Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy is a fascinating fantasy series, in some ways, for all the things it doesn't do. It doesn't follow the usual Joseph Campbell-inspired hero's journey, for one thing; indeed, much of the book's power comes from Quentin's being forced to realize that he's not anyone special - that just because he can do magic, he's still himself, and that won't change. Moreover, it's a fantasy series that's not explicitly plot-driven in the way so many fantasy series are. Each book has been its own independent tale, and while elements - mainly the characters, but some details - overlap from book to book, it's always been a series more driven by its characters and their pain than by any story or mythology. And The Magician's Land follows through on that perfectly, ending the trilogy in a way that may not satisfy those who want more details as to the lives of the gods or the truth about magic, butwill satisfy those who are invested in the growth of Quentin and his friends. If The Magicians was about the way our dreams fade in the harsh light of reality, and The Magician King was about what we're willing to pay to make our dreams come true, The Magician's Land is about learning to grow up once we realize that our dreams may not happen. That sounds harsh, and Grossman's series has always had an undercurrent of melancholy and depression underlying its fantasy elements. But in many ways,The Magician's Land is the most optimistic book of the series, finding a way to rebuild and grow, to say nothing of finding meaning in our lives beyond selfish wish-fulfillment. In some ways, it's the logical culmination of Quentin's arrested adolescence that filled the first book; The Magician's Land finally finds Quentin at a sort of peace, figuring out who he really is and trying to atone for his past sins. Of course, this being Grossman, all of this is wrapped in an exciting, involving adventure that finds Fillory in danger, Quentin involved in a magical heist, and some old characters coming back into play. It's fun, wonderful stuff, and Grossman continues his knack for making magic truly wondrous in the truest sense of the word, as though we're seeing things we may never understand, but that inspire awe and wonder from us. And it all culminates in some final chapters that are absolutely perfect, ending the series in a moment of transcendent beauty that I never quite expected. The Magician's Land brings the series together wonderfully, ending Quentin's story in a rich, satisfying way that makes the series into something that's equal parts post-modern meditation on Harry Potter, coming of age story, and literary portrait of our modern age and the post-school life many of us face. It's absolutely wonderful, and it's saying something that it just might be my favorite book of the series - no small praise at all, considering how great the first two are.
- Josh Mauthe
- Josh Mauthe