Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Magician's Land: A big and beautiful finish

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 (thankfully) 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.

*This review originally appeared here at, where I gave the book 5 stars.

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