Something nags at me with Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, and it’s not whether or not you’d class them as traditional fantasy in the vein of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or the Harry Potter books, or as more adult-based urban fantasy (say of the Dresden Files for example). I think the problem is the magic itself. Not that it exists, but the way Grossman describes it.
The Magician’s Land is and entertaining and enjoyable conclusion to the trilogy which began as a lot of sweary teenage Harry Potter types (The Magicians, 2009) and morphed into a darker kings and queens of the magic lands adventure (The Magician King, 2011). There is a lot to admire in Grossman’s writing, and his ideas. We left off the story with our hero, Quentin Coldwater, back on Earth trying to make a life for himself after his expulsion from the magical land of Fillory. Julia is out of the story, while Elliot and Janet were left ruling Fillory with Josh and Poppy. Quentin is now in a bookstore with a bunch of other magicians, being tested for a potential quest. Suddenly, however, Quentin is back at Brakebills, his former magical school, and is a new professor. One student, Plum, is trapped by Quentin’s old love, Alice (who is now a niffin) when a prank goes wrong. Quentin rescues Plum, but he’s sacked and Plum is expelled. Quentin again it seems, goes from hero to zero. We’re now back to the bookstore thread and Quentin and Plum have been recruited by a bird to find and steal a magical object. Meanwhile, Elliot and Janet discover that Fillory’s days are numbered.
Grossman plays with time in the early narrative of the book, so it takes a while to settle into a coherent plot. This is a good thing! It makes the story intriguing and asks the reader to pay attention. The early chapters feel cold and distant, as if Grossman is deliberately making it clear that this is an adult novel with adult themes. But then on our first trip to visit Elliot, we’re back on profane but amusing magician territory again. There’s some deft touches and pleasing nods to other genre pieces (the talking horse sighing in exasperation at the end of the world, again!). There are some nice touches throughout the book which respect the fans of the series but I suspect someone picking this up without the back story might be a tad confused.
There are a few rare passages, such as when Quentin and Plum become whales, that are truly magical; full of wonder and imagination. And I think that is the problem with The Magician’s Land. Throughout the book, there are descriptions of magic, such as when the ‘land’ is created, which are just dull. He tries to portray magic as natural; scientific. More like chemistry than a thing of beauty and wonder: “all very theoretical, and Quentin wasn’t that into theory” – me neither. Grossman throws a great deal of imagination into these descriptions, but they don’t feel like magic. They feel like the narrative treading water. Which is a shame.
The story is quite episodic in nature. I enjoyed Grossman’s storytelling. Whenever I thought I’d found the point of the tale, I soon discovered another direction was soon upon me. Even the title of the book can be taken a number of ways. Subtexts? Several. Connections to the past; friends and family. What it means to love someone. What it means to love magic. What it means to grow up into a different sort of person. Quentin isn’t the typical hero; he doesn’t always win the girl and save the day. It is brave of Grossman to make is main character someone who has more than a few negative traits, and mix him up with other characters in ways you wouldn’t expect. Like everyone in the book, I expected more from Quentin’s relationship with Plum, although by the conclusion, it was more real that those expectations never came to pass. Unfortunately, Alice’s reaction to her new condition was more than predictable.
In Grossman’s world, magic is imperfect and the hero’s don’t live happily ever after, which is a good thing. He tries to make it as real as he can, given the genre conventions and deconstructions. Aside from the occasional magical drift; the skilled narrative, complex character relationships, imaginative world-building and back story all add up to a decent diversion into a magician’s land.
This review is courtesy of NetGalley