“You Children and Your Adventures. Stories Have Ends!” – A Review of The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

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(Be warned that this is a spoiler-heavy review. Please be aware of that when you click on the cut.)

“The End” is an ambivalent place to be. Sometimes one can see it coming, sometimes not. At times, one wishes it would arrive sooner, and at other times, one prefers to ignore it until it is inescapable, until its inevitability can no longer be denied.

This happens a lot when I read books. Some books I wish would end quicker than others – sometimes because they’re turning out to be rather bad reads and I just want to get to the end of them so I can say I’ve read them and never touch them again, but other times because I want my answers now, now, now, and the only time I can get them is if I get to the end. And then there are times when I don’t want a book to end, when I don’t want to get to the ending because it means ending a journey, ending an experience that cannot be repeated, and I want to hold onto that experience for as long as possible. Sure, I could always go back and reread the book, but that reread won’t be the same as when I first read the book, with no knowledge of what would happen when I turned the page.

But either way, all things, good or bad, must come to an end. What matters, really, is how that ending happens. Sometimes a good ending can make all the difference in how a series is perceived overall – for instance, I have a very deep affection for Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy because it has one of the most incredible endings I’ve read for any series yet. On the other hand, while I do love the Harry Potter series in my own way, I’m not as fond of it as I could be because of the way it ended. (Yes, I’m one of those folks who thinks Rowling could have done well without that epilogue.)

So when one has an incredible story like Lev Grossman’s The Magicians Trilogy,, the ending becomes even more important. It is a powerful, magnificent story, a darkling mirror through which those of my generation, who grew up with Harry Potter and saw C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien’s works become cinematic hits, might view the world that lies ahead of us. To paraphrase the words of a critic whose name eludes me now: genre fiction (of which fantasy and science fiction are a part) is a refraction, not a reflection, of the real world, a way to view and resolve issues and complex themes about reality that literary fiction cannot accomplish.

This only means, of course, that the last book in Grossman’s trilogy, The Magician’s Land, is crucial. How will Grossman wrap up his story? What will become of Quentin Coldwater and his friends? What will be the story’s final say on the themes and ideas that first began in The Magicians, and further (much further) expanded upon in The Magician King?

As it turns out, The Magician’s Land is a fascinating story that wraps up the first two books in a pretty good way – but I say so with some reservation, because I feel there could be a been a little more meat on the bone for this particular conclusion.

The Magician’s Land picks up some time after the ending of The Magician King. Quentin, having been banished from Fillory, is forced to find a new way of living – and does. He picks up the broken pieces of his dreams, and of himself, and makes his way back to Brakebills, the school where it all began for him. However, it quickly becomes obvious that not all is right in the world – in all the worlds, for that matter – and it’s up to Quentin to figure out how to stop losing what he loves most: the land of Fillory, from which he was banished, and to which he must return, no matter the cost.

In my reviews for the first two books, I’ve constantly remarked on how much I don’t like Quentin. While I can objectively view him as a well-written character, I hate having to put up with him as a point-of-view character. He reminds me altogether too much of Holden Caulfield, and since I’ve always wanted to grab Holden’s neck and squeeze till he stops moving, this is not a very flattering comparison. Quentin is never satisfied with anything: in The Magicians, he passes the extremely difficult exam at Brakebills and learns to work magic, but isn’t satisfied with that. In The Magician King, he rules as a king in the magical land of Fillory, but he’s not satisfied with that, either. I kept reading about all these things that he got – including love – and he kept tossing them aside, and all I wanted to do was slap him and say: “Why are you doing this? Why are you not happy with what you have? Do you not know how many people would kill to have what you have?”

However, the Quentin the reader meets in The Magician’s Land could not be more different from the Quentin in the previous two books. There are many ways one could describe him at the beginning of this novel, but all I can say is this: he’s grown up. It’s as if being kicked out of Fillory at the end of The Magician King actually forced him to grow up – an assumption that’s confirmed by a minor character a little further in. Forced to realise that he is in no way some kind of unique Chosen One, forced to accept that he’s not the protagonist of some grand narrative (so to speak), Quentin accepts it all, and proceeds to pick up the shattered pieces of his life, and tries to make as normal and mundane a life out of it as he can – or as normal and mundane a life as a magical adept trained at Brakebills can make it.

For a while, he misses what he used to be, misses being a King of Fillory, but after a while, that doesn’t matter. What matters is teaching his students, his research, the life he’s managed to carve out for himself at Brakebills. He comes to realise that it’s not a very grand life, but it’s a good life. His transformation is best summarised in the following quote:

Maybe when you give up your dreams, you find out that there’s more to life than dreaming.

There could be no truer line to describe the Quentin Coldwater of The Magician’s Land – and this is a Quentin I can, at last, like and relate to. For a brief while he thinks he might actually be special, when his father passes away, but when he learns that his father was not, in fact, a wizard-in-hiding, that final shred of the old Quentin finally disappears, and all that’s left is the new Quentin: an odd, slightly bumbling Brakebills teacher specialising in teaching relatively minor magics to freshmen. As I said, it’s not a grand life, but it’s a good life, and in the end, that’s all one can really ask for: a good life.

And then there’s Plum, the student who breaks Quentin’s newfound ordinary life. Plum is, probably, one of the best characters in the entire novel: she is wise in ways that Quentin wasn’t at her age, but she’s still young enough to make mistakes of her own and to learn from Quentin’s newfound wisdom. There were a lot of times when I found myself reading about Plum and her thoughts and wishing I was that wise at her age – could have spared myself quite a bit of grief, if that were the case. I also really like that she and Quentin essentially balance each other out – theirs is probably the most perfect yin-yang friendship I’ve read in a long while.

I would also like to emphasise the word “friendship” when it comes to the two of them. See, looking at the situation Quentin and Plum find themselves in, their relationship could easily have been written as romantic – indeed, many other characters in the novel ask one or both of them if they’re sleeping with each other. However, they both consistently deny it, and that’s something I greatly appreciate. It would have been so ridiculously easy, perhaps even expected, to have Quentin and Plum sleep with each other, or to have Plum be Quentin’s new girlfriend, but thankfully Grossman does not even go there, and the reader is instead given this wonderful and purely platonic relationship that proves that sometimes, friendship can work out better than romance.

And speaking of girlfriends, one of Quentin’s actually makes a comeback in this novel: Alice, the girl he loved and lost in The Magicians. Transformed into a niffin because of her anger and thirst for vengeance, she haunts Quentin for a majority of the novel, hoping to make him see what he has done to her and avenge herself on him. Quentin, for his part, wants to release Alice from the state she’s in, thinking to give her peace at last.

And here is where Grossman once again stands a typical fantasy trope on its head – something he does so incredibly well, and which is the whole point of The Magicians Trilogy in the first place. In the normal course of things, Quentin would release Alice’s spirit from her niffin state, whereupon Alice would return to “normal” and finally pass on, giving Quentin absolution from his sins against her. But that’s not what happens – instead, Alice actually comes back to life, and is angry about it. She states that she actually enjoyed being a niffin, that in that state she was free from inconvenient emotions like guilt and empathy, and for a while she blames Quentin, not just for the things that turned her into a niffin in the first place, but for changing her back to a human and taking away all the power she had as a niffin. She calms down, eventually, but it’s made clear at the end of the novel that she’ll never be who she one was. But then again, that makes sense: death changes us all, and coming back from the dead, or going from one state to another (as Alice did when she went from human to niffin and back to human again) never leaves a person unmarked or unchanged in some way.

Now that I speak of Alice, it’s only right that I mention the other friends Quentin made in the first two books: Eliot, Janet, Josh, Penny, Poppy, and of course Julia. Julia does not come into play until nearly the very end of the novel, but her friend, Asmo, puts in a crucial appearance in the middle third, as a part of the heist team Quentin and Plum join up with.

As for the others, they’ve changed as well, to greater or lesser degree. Poppy and Josh aren’t much discussed, and from the point that he entered the Neitherlands Penny doesn’t – and hasn’t – really change much, either, but Eliot and Jane really come into their own in this novel. They’ve both grown to love Fillory, each in their own way, and though they’re dismissive at first they both gradually realise that they have, in fact, grown up and become adults in Fillory, that they’ve taken on responsibilities and matured in ways they might not have had Quentin not insisted they come here way back in the events of The Magicians. The thought rather surprises them, but reassures them as well – one of the reasons why they’re both so determined to make sure that Fillory isn’t destroyed, no matter what the gods or anyone else says.

I actually find this idea rather interesting, and in a way, comforting – especially since Janet doesn’t really change much of who she really is. Eliot shows that growing up can sometimes change a person rather drastically, but Janet shows the opposite: some people grow up, but they don’t really change – they simply make room for maturity at the core of who they are. Janet was, is, and always will be angry and hard. She will never be soft, and will never understand why people have to be. She will always be ruthless, and always judgmental. But she knows that she’s grown up, knows that she’s a woman with responsibilities, and that it was only possible for her to grow up that way in Fillory. Without Fillory, she would not have become the happy (as far as is possible with her), mature adult she is in The Magician’s Land, and towards the end she realises that when she returns to the real world (she’s pragmatic enough to know and accept that Fillory must end), she’ll never be as whole a person as she was when she was Queen of Fillory, and if there is anything she mourns, it is the loss of that sense of completeness.

Now, while all is quite fine and dandy in terms of character development, the plot itself is not without some of its problems. As a whole the novel reads very well indeed, and as a unit, on its own, I have nothing to really complain about, but as part of a series I do feel it’s a bit lacking. The only word I can think of is “smaller”. In The Magician King Grossman really opened up the magical world he’s built for the novel, with all that talk about strange entities governing magic and what the Neitherlands really is, but then he shrinks it all down again to just the real world and Fillory, as if those larger, grand-scale concepts he introduced in the second book don’t really matter anymore. Even the question of gods as represented by Reynard and the terrible events of Julia’s story in the second novel are relegated to, in my opinion, a rather minor note in this novel. To be sure, the whole business with Ember and Umber and the creation and salvation of Fillory is interesting and thoroughly engaging, but it’s not to the same grand scale that had been implied in the second book.

The thing is, I really liked those bigger concepts, liked what they brought to the table and what they said about the magical world as a whole. I enjoy world-building, and I thought that Grossman had done incredibly well with it in the first two books, giving a sense of true crisis and an escalation of that crisis. In fact, at the end of the second book I was thinking that there was going to be a great big apocalyptic event endangering not just Fillory, but all the worlds as well, and that it would be something that happened in, or had to do with, the Neitherlands, so I was surprised when it was really limited to just Fillory. While I suppose that makes sense, given Fillory’s central position in all three books, I do wish Grossman had done something with that enormous structure he hinted existed in the second book.

But I guess that that’s really just a small problem, especially when one looks at the much greater strengths of the novel, and the series, as a whole. The grand, universe-altering, epic ending is probably the expected one, after all, and Grossman has done nothing but the unexpected in this trilogy, so I suppose that I shouldn’t have held my breath. Still, it would have been a nice way to end the whole thing, but that’s likely just a matter of personal preference.

Overall, The Magician’s Land is the ending that fans of Grossman’s series have wanted, especially those who were hoping Quentin would finally be able to see past his own nose and grow up. Quentin does indeed finally grow up, and those who were annoyed with him at first will find that he is now one of the finest characters in the entire series – not least because of what he used to be like. And it’s not just Quentin who grows up – all the characters do, each finding their own place and purpose in the world, whether that world is the real world, or Fillory, or even the Neitherlands. The ending is also, in its own way, one of the most note-perfect endings I’ve read yet.

However, I do wish that the plot had been grander, especially considering how much the world-building had expanded in the second novel. Those elements suggested the shadow of a plot that I thought could have been built upon to make a truly magnificent, resounding, epic conclusion, but that wasn’t meant to be. I suppose that the epic ending on that scale wasn’t Grossman’s plan, anyway: after all, it would be the obvious thing to do, and if Grossman’s done anything with this trilogy, it’s to take the obvious and stand it on its head.

That is, however, a relatively minor complaint. For others, however, they will be very much pleased with the book as is, and with the way it brings the entire trilogy to a close. Hope suggested that I reread the entire series immediately after finishing The Magician’s Land, and I highly recommend the experience to other readers.

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