Review: The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

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Lev Grossman

★★★★

Viking Books, 2014.

In which the Brakebill’s alumni finally grow up.

The Magician’s Land is the thrilling finale to the Magicians trilogy, which follows a group of thoroughly unlikable wizards from their booze and sex-filled college days through their reign in the Narnia-inspired land of Fillory.

The series has been billed as “Harry Potter” and “Narnia” for adults – what if Harry Potter traded his butterbeer for copious amounts of single malt and the Gryffindors were constantly fucking in their common rooms. But that is a drastic oversimplification. Sure, there are young heroes studying at a magic school who then visit a magical land and become kings and queens – and in the process have a lot of parties and sex – but these books are as much a look at the generational zeitgeist of millennials as they are a deconstruction of children’s fantasy novels.

The characters live in a world where Harry Potter and Dungeons and Dragons exist, and they constantly reference these pop culture touchstones, speaking in memes and plenty of hipster irony. If a wizard could wear a skinny jeans, a truckers hat and drink a PBR, he’d fit in with this crew – hell, he probably already has the requisite long beard.

There’s Quentin, the emo genius, who has had everything he dreamed of as a kid handed to him, yet cannot find joy in the magical land of his childhood fantasies. And Eliot – the gay, alcoholic layabout. And Janet – the jaded snarkmeister whose callous exterior and casual approach to sex and drugs hides layers of anger and parental issues. And Julia – Quentin’s high school crush who did not get into the prestigious magic college, Brakebill’s, but discovered magic on her own, through online chatrooms and disturbing rituals.

All of these characters are brought together by a love of the children’s fantasy series “Fillory and Further” – a Narnia-esque series about the adventures of the five Chatwin children in the magical land of Fillory. When Quentin and Co. discover the world is real, they seek to explore and conquer it like their childhood heroes, only to find that not all stories have happy endings and the hero doesn’t always win the glory.

Magician’s Land finds Quentin, having been cast out of Fillory after saving the world and then fired from a professorship at Brakebill’s, joining a team of magical burglars to recover a mysterious briefcase. He is still pining Alice, his ex-girlfriend who sacrificed herself in the first book, and hoping the caper will help him find some way to resurrect her. In the meantime Eliot and Janet are still in Fillory, trying to prevent the end of the world.

Surprisingly, the briefcase isn’t a McGuffin – another example of Grossman’s playful tweaking of genres – but does indeed hold the keys to Fillory’s survival and the resurrection of Alice, who is now haunting Quentin as a powerful energy demon.

The novel also delves into the motivations behind the “Fillory and Further” books that inspired the Brakebill’s magicians. And like their modern counterparts, the truth behind the fantasy is much darker than the story.

The Magicians series is ultimately about how we react to our childhood fantasies, shape the world around us to fulfill our dreams, and how we approach responsibility and adulthood. The naïve belief that magic and power will make the world better, or provide an escape from the ugliness in your life. That privilege is given, and not earned. That success isn’t always the reward for hard work.

Grossman directly addresses this in a section of Magician’s Land, quoting from one of the Chatwin children’s personal diary:

“Reading the Fillory books you would think that all one has to do is behave honorably and bravely and all will be well. What a lesson to teach young children. What a way to prepare them for the rest of their lives.”

Quentin and his friends have everything they could possibly want laid out before them, and until this final book, all they can do is bitch about it. They believe they are master mages and expect glory and rewards for simply showing up. Their college even encourages this belief. Yet they ultimately find they are really woefully ordinary. Even Quentin’s mysterious, unknown magical focus turns out to simply be that he is adept at repairing small items. But as the apocalypse comes these young wizards finally show the growth and maturity to face their tasks and in doing so, become the heroes and earn the endings they’ve always felt they deserved.

A towering series and an epic climax, deserving much more than simplistic comparisons to the Boy Who Lived.

—Michael Senft

Buy The Magician’s Land

About Michael Senft

I am a freelance writer and critic from Phoenix Arizona. I spent 10 years covering music, the arts and pop culture for the “Arizona Republic” before life circumstances took me away from newspaper. But I never lost my joy at writing. Or reading.
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5 Responses to Review: The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

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