Just, wow. I’ve just finished reading The Magician’s Land, Book 3 of the Magicians trilogy, and I am feeling overwhelmed. Reading the first book in the series, I did not expect I would grow to love the last one this much, or that I would feel so strongly about it. This series is excellent in so many ways.
I usually write my book reviews focusing on one book at a time, even when it’s a series. However, it’s impossible to review any part of the Magicians trilogy individually. It is a story that requires the reader to look at it as a whole, and that’s what I’ll try to do here. Before we start, let me just clarify there are no plot spoilers here, though I will speak clearly of character growth. If you can’t stand any kind of spoilers, I recommend reading the books before reading this, though make sure you read as far as the second book before giving up.
The Magicians Trilogy – Lev Grossman
Let’s make something clear: the first book in the series, The Magicians, is a bit irritating. In fact, I nearly gave up on it when I was just 10 or 20 pages in, because the protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is such an insufferable, pretentious, Nice Guy-ing little twat. Now, I don’t have anything against dislikeable characters. I’m one of those people who loved Gone Girl, and really enjoyed The Girl on the Train. However, it all hit too close to home; I was a perfect little shit when I was younger, in the exact same ways as Quentin.
I was incredibly insecure and carried a lot of self-loathing. I was very condescending and thought I was that much better than everyone else. And it might or might not be related to the trans thing, but either way teenage me was inexcusably a Nice ‘Guy’, always looking for some girl to fix me and make me feel whole.
So reading about someone exactly like that made me angry, because it brought up all the shame and frustration I usually get from thinking of my younger self’s worst aspects. I still stuck with the book. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was that the book opened with a dedication reading “For Lily“. That was pretty encouraging.
In any case, I’m glad I finished it and decided to read the second book in the series. Let’s be clear on something, The Magicians (that is, Book 1) is nothing special. It is a book that starts with an obvious reference to Narnia, goes off into boring, nerdy Hogwarts, and ends up trying to be The Magician’s Nephew, only with an uncomfortably familiar and repellent protagonist.
Once you get over how annoying Quentin is, it’s not bad at all, but it’s not really very good. If it were a stand-alone book I’d be okay with having read it, but wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else.
Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. The Magician King comes along in all its brilliance. By now Quentin has had to deal with some loss and has grown a little. He’s still a little annoying, but he’s come a ways from the awful little shit he was in the first few pages of The Magicians. The really excellent part of this book, though, is how it makes Fillory finally live up to the books it was inspired by.
Plenty of people read Asimov and try to write stories about travel and space, but never capture the genius that makes him so great to read. Way too many people have tried to be Tolkien, and left the world with a million hero’s quests that all blur together in an unoriginal mess. You need a lot of talent to write something that can be looked at next to the work of CS Lewis and not be embarrassed by the comparison. Lev Grossman is not as incredible a writer as Lewis, but he’s done what I’ve never ever seen anyone manage to do: successfully capture the same sense of pure joy and wonder in the Narnia books.
The sea voyage in The Magician King is as reminiscent of Prince Caspian as the Neitherlands are of The Magician’s Nephew, but manage to imitate the feel much better. As the voyagers on the Muntjac explored new islands and had adventures on them, I had trouble forgetting I was reading about Fillory and not Narnia. Some of the passages felt indistinguishable to me from Lewis. Fortunately, it’s not just a carbon copy in style. Grossman brings his own style to the book, and it is actually an improvement. There’s no weird and frustratingly overhanded religious symbolism (and thank Aslan for that!), but there’s also a sense of playfulness and hilarity that’s very welcome.
As I read The Magician King I kept grinning, laughing, and giggling without being able to help it. From Quentin and Eliot’s sarcastic comments to clear parody of fantasy tropes, the book is a treasure trove of pure enjoyment. There were times I felt like I was reading Pratchett or Douglas Adams. Grossman makes fun of fantasy in the way only someone who truly loves fantasy can pull off.
The Magician’s Land has all that going for it, but even more so. It is also really, really fun to read because of its light-hearted tone, and pure pleasure in ridiculousness. The passage where Janet explains the origin of her magic twin axes is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read in my life. I was crying from laughing so hard. I’ve read close to 700 books now, but I can’t think of the last time I found something in a book that hilarious. I won’t spoil it, but I’d say reading the two first books in the series is definitely worth it just for that passage, leaving aside everything else.
By far the most wonderful part of the book is Quentin. A bit ironic, since he was the worst part of the first book, but as it turns out it’s not coincidental. See, Lev Grossman isn’t some Nice Guy writing creepy wish fulfilment fiction. He’s someone who clearly used to be Quentin, but grew up and left all that behind. The Quentin in this book is the same; he’s left go of all the self-loathing and pretension, and just IS. He isn’t perfect, but he knows who he is and accepts it. He’s not special, he’s not this unique little snowflake, chosen to be the most important magician in history. He’s not in any legends, he’s not specially smart, and he’s not even the most powerful magician around. He’s not Harry Potter, or Hermione. He’s just someone trying his best, and being who he is.
And that’s beautiful. I particularly loved a passage near the end of the book where Quentin thinks of the annoying person he used to be, and just feels love for him. It made me smile.
The Magicians trilogy is many things. It is a ton of fun to read. It’s hilarious, and silly, and clever. It also has interesting stories to tell, and it can be fun to find out more about what happens. It has excellent world-building. More than anything else, it’s about growing up, and everything it entails. It is a series about changing, and learning to love (really love) and how to let go, and accept happiness in the way things are.
Finally, a quick note on how ‘adult’ this book is. I sometimes hear people refer to certain fantasy books as ‘adult,’ implying one or both of two things: that ‘regular’ fantasy is only good enough for kids, and that violence and death are worth having in a story just because.
Of course fantasy is not just for children, and the dismissive attitude some people have towards ‘children’s stories’ ends up making their ‘grown-up’ books seem boring an unimaginative. The latter implication can be irritating as well. It seems to believe that sex and death and tragic loss add something to a story just by being there. And sure, they’re useful tools that serve a purpose, but there needs to be a goal in mind when using them, not just their inclusion for its own sake.
People who wanted me to read this series kept referring to it as ‘adult’ Harry Potter and ‘adult’ Narnia, and I didn’t know whether they meant it in any of the two ways mentioned above, but felt annoyed by the term regardless. I don’t care that a book is ‘adult’, I care about how good it is, and whether it’s worth reading.
So, let me clarify what people might mean when they say this is an adult book, and what I would mean if I were ever to describe it that way.
This book has death. It has rape. It has brutal murder, and blood, and violence. It has decapitation, and cannibalism, and honest-to-god monsters. But none of that is there for shock, or just to make it stand out and seem edgy. It’s all used carefully as part of the story. Some of it is to flesh out the Universe, some of it is to lead to character growth, some of it is just consequence to certain actions. It never feels forced or gimmicky, and thank goodness for that.
The ultimate strength of the series is in the other way you could look at the ‘adult’ term. Not that it tries to be ‘above’ mere children’s stories, because it doesn’t. These books embrace Narnia more than anything else, and do not dismiss it as useless or worthless just because they’re ‘children’s books’. No, the real way this book is adult is that you get more out of it the older you are. As a teenager I’d have probably identified with Book 1 Quentin the most, and lost interest as the books go on. While I’m still really young, I’ve matured enough that I can appreciate the way Quentin also matures and changes, and I’m sure in ten years the books will be that much better to read again. It is a love letter to the past, but written from experience, and it resonates better the more sure you are of yourself, and the more you are able to kindly look back on your past self, but still acknowledge the ways you are better off now, knowing who you are and not caring what the fuck the rest of the world wants you to be.
This series is a treasure, and it’s worth reading to the end, and then sitting in silence for a few minutes as you try to understand the beautiful story you’ve just finished.