The Magician's Land: A Novel (Magicians Trilogy)
Viking Adult, 2014
416 pp., $27.95
Carissa Turner Smith
The Magician's Land
"At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art, which … is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centered power which is the mark of the mere Magician." —J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories"
Plentiful have been the reviews and marketing blurbs that have described Lev Grossman's now-complete Magicians trilogy as a mash-up of Harry Potter and Narnia, but for grown-ups. In the first book, The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater finds himself summoned to Brakebills College, which is indeed something like an American Hogwarts for a slightly older set. After graduation, Quentin and his Brakebills buddies discover that the Narnia-esque land of Fillory—which they had believed was only the fictional creation of children's author Christopher Plover—is real, and they journey thence. The true struggles they have to face in Fillory, however, are heartbreak, ennui, depressive brain chemicals, and the usual narcissistic mistakes of young adulthood.
In The Magician's Land, the concluding volume in the trilogy, Quentin is thirty and still trying to find his way. After a brief return to Brakebills to teach (every smart student's dream, especially since he doesn't even have to get a postgraduate degree to do so), he attempts magical heists and, ultimately, world-making before getting drawn into Fillory's apocalyptic drama (and since the book's epigraph is The Last Battle's "Further up and further in!", that's hardly a spoiler). Quentin's bumbling journey to maturity has been the focus of the series from the beginning, but in The Magician King, the trilogy's second volume, Grossman had branched out from Quentin's narrative perspective, giving half of the book to a female character, and with gut-wrenching impact. Here he tries to multiply that success by splitting the novel into four (or five, depending on how you count it) different narrative perspectives, which doesn't allow any of them to be developed in depth. Still, this volume was engrossing enough that I confess to having paid a babysitter so that I could finish reading it.
To a greater extent than the previous installments, The Magician's Land gives the impression that Quentin's story has more than a touch of autobiography. (Am I reading too much into the fact that Quentin's first attempt at making a world is a soundless, sterile, mirror version of the house in which he is living when he casts the spell, and Grossman's first, unsuccessful novel was realistic literary fiction?) From the outset, Grossman's own fantasy world has been hyper-referential and openly engaged with the question of originality. He began writing The Magicians, he has said, to amuse himself during the long wait between books five and six of the Harry Potter series, and this desire to continue dwelling in a more grown-up version of Rowling's universe persists in The Magician's Land.
Take, for example, the library at Brakebills: "a few books in the more obscure corners of the stacks retained some autonomy, dating back to an infamous early experiment with flying books, and lately they'd begun to breed. Shocked undergraduates had stumbled on books in the very act." The "resulting offspring had been either predictably derivative (in fiction) or stunningly boring (non-fiction); hybrid pairings between fiction and nonfiction were the most vital. The librarian thought the problem was just that the right books weren't breeding with each other and proposed a forced mating program. The library committee had an epic secret meeting about the ethics of literary eugenics which ended in a furious deadlock." Sentient, unruly books? Check. Amusing attempts to administer magic? Check. That chuckle of pure delight over a throwaway detail? All elements of Rowling's best moments. But then there's that deliberate call-out to "derivative" fiction—an element of pointing back at himself that never occurs in Lewis and seldom in Rowling.
Grossman's books may indeed be derivative, but that's one of their strengths rather than a weakness. If fantasies, post-Tolkien, involve the creation of a whole world with its own mythology and language, then the Magicians trilogy isn't intended to be a fantasy. It's more like realistic literary fiction set in someone else's fantasy universe, a borrowed universe that's distorted as if in a funhouse mirror that somehow actually enables you to see the original more clearly. As such, the Magicians trilogy deals more poignantly than most conventionally realistic novels with the challenges of extremely bright young people who have gone to just the right educational institutions (Grossman went to Harvard and Yale, for the record) and still can't figure out what on earth (or in Fillory) to do with their lives. In The Magician's Land, however, Grossman seems to be struggling more with the need to establish himself as a world-creator rather than a world-borrower. Just as the character Quentin is dealing with multiple daddy issues, Grossman himself is contending rather oedipally with the legacy of C. S. Lewis.