It took about 9 months, but I finally worked my way through the full Magicians trilogy. Like my original read of the series, I couldn’t take them all in back-to-back.
Where this series differs from other magical series is the grittiness. Where other series are fantastical, this one is really more of an existential, coming-of-age novel posing as a fantasy series (and yes, our protagonist is an adult the whole time, but the point of the story is that he isn’t really grown up yet.
Basically, I feel on edge after reading these books, especially the first two. When the first book ended, I was a little shell-shocked. I kept waiting for a happy ending that wasn’t going to arrive. It was supposed to be like Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia, but it only was on the surface. In actuality, it was about a slightly depressed teen who becomes a slightly depressed magician. And then you watch as crappy thing after crappy thing happens, typically self-inflicted.
I think the books are great for this reason, but I can’t read them back-to-back. I need to come back down with something lighter, typically.
Before I get to the review, I wanted to go on a quick aside about the orphaned hero, which recurs in fantasy books, as far as I can tell. Some are literally orphans, and some are just practically orphans. Here’s a quick list from some of the series I’ve read:
- Harry Potter – Parents died
in a car crashat the hands of the cowardly Tom Riddle.
- Eragon – Only knows who his mother is, and she died not long after giving birth to him and leaving him with his uncle and aunt.
- Frodo – Parents died in a boating accident and is raised by his weird relation who doesn’t age.
- Quentin – Parents aren’t dead, but they don’t pay much attention to their maladjusted son.
- Arion & Suri (Age of Myth) – Arion’s mother effectively disowns her when she joins another clan, and Suri was raised by a forest seer from the time she was a baby.
Why so many abandoned children leading these stories?
Maybe it’s because you inherently feel bad for the kids left to fend for themselves. Maybe it’s a tool in the story that forces the children to be more self-sufficient. Maybe it’s just random luck.
But let’s get back to The Magician’s Land (spoilers ahead).
When we last left our hero, Quentin Coldwater, he was saving magic and Fillory itself, only to be kicked out of Fillory for his effort.
But at least this time he didn’t have a dead girlfriend to deal with. He just had a former crush who became a demigoddess and was now living on the Far Side with his former personal bodyguard.
When we pick up the final volume of the trilogy, Quentin has become a teacher at Brakebills. That of course goes south. He then engages in a heist. That of course goes south. Then he’s on the lam trying to piece things back together. That of course… well, that didn’t go south.
Where the first two books were just examples in bad decision-making, the last book in the series lets Quentin grow up. He faces his past demons. He deals with not feeling loved by his father. He deals with feeling inadequate compared to his dreams of being a great user of magic. He deals with his dead girlfriend who isn’t actually dead and has taken to haunting him as a bright blue demon of magic.
This book also differs from the first two in its points of view. In the first book, it’s all Quentin all the time. Side note, with everyone calling Quentin Q, I actually get confused reading the book because some people insist on calling me Q. It’s a weird world. In the second book, it’s mostly Quentin with some Julia to get us up to speed on her story. In the last book? Everyone gets some screen time. Of course, Quentin gets the largest chunk. He’s the magician the title refers to. A new arrival, recently expelled Brakebills student Plum, gets the next biggest chunk. Eliot and Janet get there fair share, and even the bright blue demon gets to have a point of view for a little while.
The lack of consistency in how the story actually gels with the overall aesthetics of the series, even though it seems like it should piss me off instead. The series is messy. Things don’t happen the way they’re supposed to. Heroes and villains aren’t so discrete from each other. The good guys are a-holes sometimes, and the bad guys usually have a point to make.
For all that it is, this is the book with the happy ending, which isn’t really all that happy. We see Quentin content and everyone getting what they want, but there’s still a big underlying mess for everyone. One thing that’s always going to bug me is that the ones who go to Fillory for extended periods of time are basically never in contact with friends and family ever again. While some hate their families, not all of them did, and you have to imagine that some of the parents are still trying to piece together what’s going on and why have their children been effectively missing for 7 years.
But it’s a page-turner. It’s not a perfect series. I think Grossman uses big words a bit too often that take away from the storytelling. He wants his characters to seem like geniuses, which occassionally renders them incomprehensible. But these rogue moments are more than countered by sheer number of self-aware moments in the book that reference other realms of fantasy. Grossman knows how to get meta, gotta give him that.
The series is definitely worth a read if you’re an adult reader of fantasy. It gives it the reverence it deserves while also poking it with a stick every now and then so you know that if these fantastical worlds were real, they’d be just as messy as the real world.