Review : The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman

"It didn’t matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home.”
            --Lev Grossman, from The Magician’s Land

Unless you’ve been caught in in an enchanted sleep for the past several years (or just don’t pay attention to book news at all, I suppose) you’ve heard of The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman. “Harry Potter for adults,” it’s been called, as well as both a deconstruction of and loving homage to The Chronicles of Narnia and other classic works of genre fantasy. It’s achieved widespread critical acclaim and popular success. It’s also received the most polarized reviews I’ve ever seen on Amazon and GoodReads. Grossman’s series is a collision of literary tropes with genre fantasy tropes, all told with snarky verve and crackling Whedon-esque dialogue. Some people can’t stand these books. I love them.

I LOVE them.

I finally finished reading the last installment of the series, “The Magician’s Land,” this weekend. And it was the first time that I’ve ever deliberately slowed my reading, turning back to re-savor passages just to put off the inevitable end. “The Magician’s Land” is a beautiful work, a grand and optimistic and true ending. Taken altogether, the Magicians books trace the satisfying character arc of Quentin Coldwater, a character who started off as a self-absorbed, bitter, confused and often unlikeable teen, and who matures, finally, into a thoroughly decent, functioning adult human.

That might not sound like much to some people. But it’s a lot.

Behind all the playful jokes and flights of fancy, the humor and zillions of hip, pop-culture references, The Magicians trilogy is telling a profoundly serious story, and it’s doing it with the forms and language of fantasy. How does a person grow up in our contemporary world? How do we find meaning, how do we confront and move past trauma (because we all have trauma); how do we learn to look past ourselves and care for others, how do we deal with the inevitable disappointments and setbacks of life; how do we come to accept our own limitations, to be resilient, and to survive without bitterness?

How do we grow up? How do we stay grown-up?

In the first book, The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater and his friends are far from grownup, even after they’ve graduated from Brakebills, their Ivy-League college for magicians. They drink, do drugs, and hurt each other. They’re all adrift. They’re all good-looking, brilliant, rich (thanks to a generous stipend provided to Brakebills graduates), and they’re freaking gifted magicians. But they’re also all damaged people, and magic can’t fix that. Even traveling to the magical land of Fillory, the Narnia stand-in which is the land of Quentin’s dreams, a world which he first discovered in the pages of a children’s book and which he had thought just a story—even Fillory can’t make Quentin happy. And Fillory turns out to be far more brutal and dangerous than children’s literature suggested.

By the second book, “The Magician King,” Quentin is beginning to mature and take on responsibility. At that book’s end, he takes responsibility for what happened to his old friend, Julia (even though it wasn’t all his fault) and he sacrifices himself for her. As a result of that sacrifice, he loses what he thought he loved best—Fillory itself, the magical land of which he become king.

The last book brings us full circle. Having lost seemingly everything, Quentin returns to Brakebills and take up teaching. He soon loses that job, too. But even at the seeming bottom of his life, there’s a new calmness in Quentin. He’s grown through loss, and the incessant nattering in his head—the endless doubt and over-analysis and self-recrimination—has quieted. It’s like the difference in Hamlet when he comes back from his sea voyage and battle with pirates. The endless self-doubt is gone. We don’t actually see the moment of change, but we can see that it’s happened. Quentin (like Hamlet) still has more trials and fighting ahead, but there’s a new acceptance, and even serenity, in him. This time, the reader can see that Quentin is actually one resilient bastard.

As are the other characters of this book. Everyone is growing up in the last book, and now we get to hear their stories. Eliot has a couple hilarious chapters. For the first time we hear Janet’s story. She is one angry, broken person, and for the first time we glimpse what has made her that way. We also get to see her live out a thoroughly satisfying badass revenge story which also happens to be heartbreaking.

As the series continues, the books widen in scope and complexity. The first book featured only Quentin’s voice, but the second alternated chapters with Julia, the bitter girl on the outskirts of magic, who had to fight and claw her way to the magical knowledge that was handed straight to Quentin. The third book features so many viewpoints that it can be hard to keep up. A compelling new character, Plum, is introduced. Old characters come back.And this final volume of the Magicians trilogy is fun. Have I forgotten to make that clear? There’s some heavy stuff, yes, but for sheer blessed fun this volume tops all the others. Quentin and Plum turn themselves into blue whales—just for the heck of it! There’s a crime heist with a thrilling flying magic carpet ride. There’s a tender, affecting love story. Grossman lets his imagination fly, and the physical descriptions of Fillory get even stranger and more beautiful as the land nears its seeming end. And near the end of the book, there’s a sharp turn into sheer horror, a cat-and-mouse through a haunted house that had me reading wide-eyed and breathless, thoroughly freaked out.

There’s an apocalyptic final battle and the fate of Fillory hangs in the balance. . . but it was never about Fillory, not at all. Some readers have complained about how thin the world of Fillory felt in the first two books, how it’s just a jokey Narnia pastiche. Despite the increasingly detailed wonders, it still feels a little thin at the end. But Fillory was never really important, not for itself. It was only ever important for what it meant to the characters we’ve come to love. The battle isn’t for an epic fantasy land of dwarves and pegasi and hippogriffs and giants. In the end, this is about the single, individual battles for a human’s soul.

This book is also a reminder, and demonstration, of what fantasy literature can do. In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Lev Grossman wrote this:

“For me fantasy isn’t about escaping reality, it’s about re-encountering the challenges of the real world, but externalized and transformed.”

That’s what he’s accomplished in The Magicians trilogy. There’s a scene at the end that encapsulates it all for me. After all he’s been through, Quentin is reminded of the little boy he once was, who read a series of fantasy novels about an imaginary world and fell in love with them. He’s spent the rest of his life dealing with the fallout of that love, trying to come to terms with fact that the imaginary world he read about is nothing like Earth, nothing even like the real Fillory that he eventually encountered and came to rule. The Magician’s trilogy can be read as a critique of that love, of all of us who have ever gone through the wardrobe and wished to never ever come back. But at the end of the Magician’s Land, Quentin does a surprising thing: he is able to symbolically integrate his innocent, child-like love for Fillory with his new adult life that now moves past Fillory. It’s a beautiful moment that couldn’t be conveyed other than with the fantastical images employed. It’s an example of how an author can use the tools of fantasy, its armamentarium of literal symbols, to achieve an effect that no realist author can.

And it’s a moment that affirms what reading does. People, especially fantasy geeks, often use reading as an escape. And it can serve as an amazing, miraculous escape—the best one I’ve ever known. But when done wisely, it can also bring us home.


  1. Apparently I've been in an enchanted sleep, will definitely look into these when I wake up (early next year, hopefully!)

  2. Does that mean you're graduating next year?!


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