Book Review: Quentin Finally Grows The Hell Up In THE MAGICIAN’S LAND
The most frequent complaint readers lodge against the first two books in Lev Grossman's fantasy trilogy - The Magicians and The Magician King - is that the main character is unlikable. It's difficult to argue: Quentin Coldwater is selfish and short-sighted, petulant and often quite lazy. This has never been a problem for me; in a world - multiple worlds! - as richly developed as that of The Magicians', peopled with devastatingly complex characters including several brilliant, powerful women, who cares if the protagonist is a bit of a chump? But more than that, I always trusted that Grossman, a thoughtful, prescient writer, had a plan for Quentin, a path for that angry little boy who hurts and grabs and demands for the first two-thirds of this trilogy.
And boy, did he.
The Magician's Land is a quietly beautiful end to the journey that begins with Quentin's and Julia's (and James' - remember him?) Princeton interview, an interview that is transformed, quickly, into something much bigger and stranger. While this last novel contains world-ending catastrophes and world-saving triumphs, the meat of this story, the most affecting part, belongs to Quentin's unassuming odyssey into adulthood. With no fanfare, he steps into the role of hero, so subtly that we might forget he was ever anything else - if Quentin himself weren't so determined to remind us.
When he graduated he'd thought life was going to be like a novel, starring him on his own personal hero's journey, and that the world would provide him with an endless series of evils to triumph over and life lessons to learn. It took him a while to figure out that wasn't how it worked.
All through the fight he'd kept expecting himself to panic, but the panic never came, and now he knew it wouldn't. The old Quentin might have done it, but he wasn't a creature of fear anymore, jumping at his own shadow, never knowing who he was or why. When he was younger it seemed like the only time he wasn't afraid was when he was angry. He'd been so full of fear and self-doubt that the only way he could think of to be strong was to attack the world around him.
But that wasn't real strength. He understood that now.
Throughout the wondrous twists and haunted turns of The Magicians trilogy, it becomes clear that its most fateful journey follows Quentin as he learns to take responsibility for his actions, in particular for the way he has treated the women in his life. The fates of Julia and Alice, as we know them at the end of The Magician King, are terrible, tremendous things, these fearless women who hold so much more power and anger and love than Quentin knows what to do with. In The Magician's Land we meet a new woman, Plum, a student at Brakebills whose fate becomes linked with Quentin's and with Fillory's. But like Julia, and like Alice, and like Poppy and Janet, Plum's fate is so much more than that. The women in these books are never served on the side of the main course that is Quentin Coldwater; rather, they are their own, often far more delicious-looking feasts, being served at another table where we - and it appears Grossman - can't help but occasionally wish we were seated instead.
I'm terrified of spoiling a single development of The Magician's Land, a book so surprising that it doesn't take a single turn I anticipated. But what's most unexpected about The Magician's Land has nothing to do with its plot or even its characters: it's the tone of the book that caught me most off-guard. This series has always felt like a deeply cynical older brother to the rosier Harry Potter series that certainly inspired it (and as Quentin jokes to Plum at one point in the book, "Wands out, Harry," this is no covert homage), but in The Magician's Land Grossman reveals an unlikely optimism that is still rooted in the past tragedies of this story.
It's not that it's a happy book, but it's a peaceful one, one that brought me some serenity during a personally tumultuous couple of weeks. In many ways, The Magicians trilogy is about depression, about finding the reserves deep within yourself to cope with your own self-destruction, along with whatever shit the world happens to throw your way. That Grossman lands on this point in a trilogy about loutish, drunken, sex-obsessed 20-something magicians is remarkable. Like its predecessors, The Magician's Land is a poignant, gorgeously written novel, but it's also darkly funny and recognizably human. Quentin and his co-horts never fail to talk like real people, even as they're doing the undoable.
And The Magician's Land is also, as the series has always been, a book about books, about the ways they transform us and save us and make us better. Quentin's childish, all-consuming love of the Fillory books is presented as a flaw in The Magicians, but by The Magician King we realize that it's also one of the purest and best things about him. It's what brings the Physical Kids to a land no one else believed existed, and it's what saves that very land from itself. Just read this description of a library in the Neitherlands and ask yourself if you wouldn't give anything to be there. Any bookworm would:
It was a library, maybe the grandest one Plum had ever seen. She would have known it was a library with her eyes shut: the hush of it was enough, like a velvet nest in which she'd been carefully nestled, and the smell, the heavy spicy aroma of slowly, imperceptibly decomposing leather and paper, of hundreds of tons of dry ink. Every square foot of the walls was bookshelves, and every foot of every shelf was full. Creamy spines, leather spines, knobby and ribbed spines, jacketed and bare, gilded and plain, blank spines and spines crammed with text and ornament. Some were as thin as magazines, some were wider than they were tall.
She ran her fingers along them, one after the other, as if they were the long back of some giant, friendly vertebrate that she was petting. In three or four places a book had been taken down and the one next to it was left slightly aslant, leaning its head against its fellow, as if in silent mourning for its absent neighbor.
But Grossman does himself one better much earlier in the book, nailing that feeling we all know so well with far fewer words: "It didn't matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home."
So does it wrap up every development left dangling from the first two books? It's a cogent question to ask of any final book in a series, and The Magician's Land does so satisfactorily enough, but never in a slavish, box-checking way. As Quentin himself thinks as he regards a seemingly significant object from a previous book: "It certainly looked magical enough. But if it had any powers at all he'd never found them. Funny how some things you're sure will pay off never do." Perhaps every plot point and magical red herring of The Magicians and The Magician King isn't given lip service in The Magician's Land. But as for the emotional beats of this beautiful, brilliant series - every single one of those pays off. And then some.