This review contains spoilers.
With The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman has completed one of the most sophisticated fantasy series of recent times. Written carefully and glowing with subtle beauty, The Magicians trilogy depicts the hopes and malaise of a self-conscious, self-critical, and sometimes self-destructive group of young adults trying to find their place in the world.
The trilogy is clearly inspired by Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, and echoes Brideshead Revisited and The Catcher in the Rye. Allusions to Shakespeare and Dungeons and Dragons permeate the novels indiscriminately, and Grossman has even made a helpful starting list of some of the allusions in the first book. In many ways, The Magicians trilogy is a love letter to literature—it is both a paean for fantasy and the wonders of reading as well as a dirge to the loss of childhood dreams and the escape of make-believe.
The first novel, The Magicians, opens with Quentin, a socially inhibited high school senior, being accepted into Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, a secret university dedicated to the study of magic. Though Quentin is initially thrilled at the prospect of studying magic, the allure soon wears off. Learning magic is a rigorous, arduous, and tedious task that resembles the real world university experience of stressful exams and trying to absorb swaths of information in short periods of time. (Though most of us don’t have to learn Arabic, Aramaic, Old High Dutch, and Old Church Slavonic in just a few weeks.)
Quentin has been obsessed with the Fillory and Further book series (a simulacrum of The Chronicles of Narnia) since his childhood, and when he and his friends discover that Fillory is real, they believe that lasting happiness is finally within their reach. But their expedition to Fillory is a disaster, filled with tragedy and loss. One of the key themes of the first novel is the constant, crushing, and bitter disillusionment and disappointment that one faces in the ‘real world’.
Many readers will find that the biggest obstacle to enjoying these novels is the characters, particularly Quentin. Readers will almost certainly (and rightly) cringe at Quentin’s rabid entitlement and his abysmal treatment of women for much of the first two novels.
But there is another factor at play here: Quentin has depression, and I cannot help but think that a large part of the negative reaction towards him is based not in aversion to his sexism and narcissism, but to a lack of understanding of and stigma surrounding mental illness.
Readers will often bemoan how despite being given the opportunity to learn magic, something most of us can only dream of, Quentin spends most of his time avoiding serious study of magic, and instead chases instant gratification.
This is arguably the most achingly and powerfully realistic aspect of the series. Quentin’s depression is not magically solved when he discovers magic; it doesn’t go away with the flick of a wand. He struggles with it, and it is often difficult, but it is a part of who he is. These novels candidly tackle what it means to live with mental illness, a subject that is often ignored in speculative fiction.
Returning to the subject of Quentin’s sexism, it is important to understand that this is not an accidental aspect of the narrative, but is part of Quentin’s larger trajectory of growth. The Magicians trilogy operates as an extended bildungsroman in which Quentin learns to take responsibility for himself and his actions.
One of the ways the trilogy reflects Quentin’s self-obsession giving way to maturity is that the narrative expands to encompass more point of view characters. In the first novel, Quentin’s perspective is inescapable. The second novel sees the inclusion of the point of view of Julia, a friend from Quentin’s high school who does not get accepted into Brakebills and instead becomes a self-taught magician. The third novel is populated with the perspectives of Alice, Janet, Elliot, and Plum.
This widening of vision also allows the reader to see not just how Quentin has matured, but also how his friends have come into their own as well. Eliot goes from being a self-hating gay man who drowns his internalized homophobia with alcohol to the High King of Fillory, a responsible and loyal sovereign dedicated to protecting the magical world. Janet, famed and feared for her acerbic tongue and caustic wit, becomes possibly the coolest character in the series from just one chapter that explores her single-handed annexation of a desert state. At the end of the first novel, Alice, a magician prodigy and Quentin’s girlfriend, transforms herself into a niffin, a demon made of blue fire, in order to save her friends from Martin Chatwin. Her sacrifice is heroic and tragic, and her subsequent disappearance affects Quentin deeply.
In the third novel, Quentin manages to undo the spell that had turned Alice into a niffin. Though Quentin believes he has saved Alice and finally done the right thing, Alice is livid. She had enjoyed being a niffin because for once in her life she did not have to be meek or kind, she did not have to coddle Quentin, and she did not have to sacrifice herself for those around her. Instead, she could be selfish and independent, and had the unquestionable sense that she was right about everything all the time.
In other words, she was acting like Quentin had throughout much of the books, and like many men in patriarchal culture.
It is only in the third book, when Quentin has matured, that he is able to have healthy relationships with women. He teams up with Plum, a talented magician and one of his former students, during a heist to steal the suitcase of Rupert Chatwin. Their relationship is based in mutual respect and trust. Plum is the first woman Quentin treats as his equal. Perhaps more importantly for Quentin’s social development, their relationship is completely platonic, and neither assumes or expects there to be a romantic or sexual dimension to their relationship.
The positive treatment and portrayal of Plum is especially welcome in comparison to the tragedy that plagues the other women characters in the series. Alice and Julia, the two most important women characters in the trilogy, are dehumanized. Alice becomes a demon made of pure magic; Julia becomes part god after being the victim of a brutal and sickening ceremony. Even Janet, though she retains her physical humanity, only reaches her full power after she has discarded her emotionality.
And this is why Quentin’s success in reversing Alice’s niffin state is so crucial to the narrative structure of the series. It symbolizes that Quentin has finally overcome his sexism, and that for the first time he is able to see Alice as fully human, as someone whose life does not revolve around him. It is only then that the possibility that they may have a successful, happy, and truly loving relationship opens up.
At the end of the third book, Quentin and Alice make a land—that is to say, they make a new world or dimension (hence the title of the third novel, The Magician’s Land). The spell they use to do so requires a plant that is the incarnation of the wonder children feel when they discover a new world in a book.
Quentin and Alice decide to remain in their new world and explore it together. Their adventure begins with the appearance of the Cozy Horse, a figure from Fillory, whom they decide to follow and see where it leads them.
The trilogy thus ends on a powerfully poignant metaphor, one that stands for both life in general and for the writing process. Just as Quentin realizes that he must move on from Fillory in order to have a good life, so too must we move on from our childhood and adolescent fixations. Eventually, we must create our own worlds and lives. This process begins as a seed—as a distant intimation of who we could one day become and what we might be capable of doing. If we’re lucky, through care and effort, this vision will bloom into reality.
The appearance of the Cozy Horse represents how our imaginations are captured by certain ideas or motifs, and how we then repeat them in our own creations, as Virgil did with Homer, as Michael Cunningham did with Virginia Woolf, and as Lev Grossman did with C. S. Lewis. We take the ideas of our predecessors that strike our souls, and use them as the foundation to build new artworks for a new age.
And so the cycle continues, for The Magicians trilogy will undoubtedly have planted a seed in the minds of many young writers, and they too will be writing back to it when they create their own land, fondly remembering the trilogy that took an uncompromising and honest view of the fantasy genre.
-contributed by Alex De Pompa