BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Magician’s Land’ by Lev Grossman
By Lauren Herstik on August 5, 2014
Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, The Magicians, The Magician King, and The Magician’s Land, is suffused with a magic of a very real kind. With today’s release of the final installment, the story of Quentin Coldwater’s magical education and quest for meaning comes to a satisfying – if open-ended – conclusion.
Since 2009, Grossman has been feeding us, like you feed your dog heartworm pills wrapped in lunchmeat, brutally smart literary fiction dressed up as some of the most compelling fantasy writing since Harry Potter.
The Magician’s Land picks up where The Magician King left off: Quentin Coldwater, approaching 30, has been cast out of Fillory where once he ruled as king, and now must soldier on in the most mundane of pursuits – getting a life. He heads back to Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic, takes up a teaching post, and generally settles down. Meanwhile, Eliot and Janet get on with the business of ruling a land on the other side, where shit is progressively hitting the fan. Fillory’s coming apart at the seams, with the magical bonds that keep it together degrading at an exponential rate.
Quentin, immune to the quotidian, soon joins forces with Plum, a young magician with a dark secret expelled from Brakebills just as Quentin’s fired. The inevitable Quest ensues- in hot pursuit of a mysterious briefcase and its mysterious contents- and everyone’s fates are once again intertwined, straddling the magical border between Earth and Fillory.
Grossman’s deft sleight of hand manifests from the word “go.” The Magician King ends in a splashy show of magical might, spell casting and sparks flying. The Magician’s Land launches into a passage very nearly devoid of all that, following a hangdog Quentin as he gets a job, does that job, and then suddenly- quietly- deals with the death of his father.
The trilogy has always been about magic, but the magic in the prose shines brightest when Grossman addresses the fundamental challenges of growing up. The final chapters of the first book found Quentin and his cohort coming to terms with the real world and that it might not have an obvious place for them. The second book saw Quentin getting exactly what it is he’d always wanted, and finding himself cripplingly, anticlimactically bored. Here, Quentin – more stable than we’ve ever seen him before – has to do the very real work of coming to terms with his father’s death and the fact that the relationship was nothing like he’d hoped. Grossman’s writing engenders a visceral wrenching of the gut, as it takes Quentin into his father’s study, desperately seeking proof that the dead man was more than he seemed, that the cold distance between them hid something bigger, and ultimately more important. It’s a compelling, breathlessly readable passage. And not a beast is slain or a duel fought.
Nevertheless, those things do happen, with style. Grossman renders Fillory, a medieval magical realm in the C.S. Lewis tradition, in a sophisticated, literary voice. Narnia by way of Franzen.
The Magician’s Land ups the ante on all fronts: spells cast are bigger, stories told are numerous. Where first we only heard from Quentin, and later Quentin and Julia, now we get a real good look at things from all sides. Eliot speaks up, so too does Janet (formerly relegated to the sidelines), Plum, and even Alice. Because Grossman’s Fillory lore is so rich, it’s always a treat when characters stumble upon another source of information on it, here in the form of a lost Chatwin diary.
The sheer scale of the magic performed in this last installment is unlike anything offered up previously. It’s the natural progression of things: the stakes raise higher, the fights get bigger. Side by side with Quentin, we’re forced to reckon with something, a magic so big it’s always on the verge of getting out of control. Grossman’s style of magic- inspired by the practicalities of Dungeons and Dragons and the intangible beauty of making music- is highly refined, and it’s a testament to that, that the wheels don’t come off entirely.
Our heroes are engaged in grappling with massive challenges that amount to saving the world, and they do so with unfathomable power. Occasionally the rendering of said power really does tip over into unfathomable, long passages devoted to complex pseudo-science and glossed over high-level mathematics so esoteric it often becomes difficult to track. But it’s always grounded in the humanity of characters who are trying to track it right there with you, and it’s possible to find true north in a grounded emotional response.
The Magician’s Land brings the series to an artful close, answering so many of the questions raised in the previous two tomes. Just about everyone returns for an encore performance. Quentin’s quest takes him back to all the places he’d discovered previously, offering the opportunity to take stock in just how much they and he, and we have changed since last we were there. It’s one of the most affecting coming-of-age stories in literature – and yes, this is literature, no matter what the genre police might have you think – today. You’ll hate to see Quentin and his friends go, but you’ll love to watch them walk away.
The Magician’s Land is available in stores today.