Lev Grossman’s 2009 bestseller The Magicians had one irresistible hook buried inside another. The book was tagged as “Harry Potter for grown-ups”—a young man goes to a school for magic and discovers a wondrous hidden world. But Grossman’s real trick was using familiar fantasy-novel trappings to write literary fiction. Unlike Harry, Quentin Coldwater starts out as a college student, allowing Grossman to deal with sex, existential dread, and onrushing adulthood in ways a typical fantasy saga couldn’t. Magic isn’t as simple as shouting a few faux-Latin words and waving a wand; it’s treated here as a high-level academic discipline, and we get to see the characters put real effort into it. Grossman tells exciting fantasy adventures, but at the same time deconstructs the fantasy, as his characters discover that even magical wish-fulfillment is no guarantee of happiness, and even a job casting spells in a magical land is still work.
Rather than simply tacking on new spells, new monsters, and a new adventure with each book, Grossman primarily uses the trilogy format to explore his characters as they grow up. One of the knocks against the original was that Quentin and his friends were too unlikable—selfish, entitled, self-destructive, self-pitying, and awful in every way that teenagers can be. By the second book, Quentin had matured, slightly, into a typically directionless twentysomething. Now, approaching 30 at the start of The Magician’s Land, it’s clear that the real heart of the story is how someone who gets to literally live out his childhood fantasies finally embraces adulthood.
The childhood fantasy in question isn’t just having magical abilities. For Quentin, it’s being able to travel to Fillory—the Narnia-esque magical land he and his friends discover in the first book and end up ruling over in the second. Once the third book gets going, doom is on the horizon and Fillory’s fate, naturally, hangs in the balance. But before the world-saving can start, Grossman’s story leaps into action from page one, alternating between rollicking adventure in Fillory, and a magical heist back in the real world, with requisite twists, turns, and double-crosses, and a deeper look into characters and plots he’s been quietly setting up for two books.
The second book, The Magician King, improved markedly on the first by splitting the book’s point of view between Quentin and Julia, a fellow magician who sacrifices nearly everything to get what Quentin has simply been handed. The third book broadens its perspective even more, splitting time between Quentin, his friends Eliot and Janet, now ruling as King and Queen in Fillory, and Plum, a magician-in-training Quentin takes under his wing.
It’s nice to see Janet in particular come into her own, as she was little more than a plot point in the first book and an afterthought in the second. The reader finally gets to know her, and see the reasons for her bitterness toward the world. Grossman deals in damaged individuals, and sooner or later he shows us what it is that damaged them. Her story isn’t as powerful as Julia’s arc in the previous book, but it serves the same function, throwing Quentin’s relatively charmed life into relief.
This series isn’t perfect—the secondary characters get shoved to the foreground or background as needed, and the second book’s setup asked some questions about the nature of Fillory and magic itself that the third book neglects to address—but The Magician’s Land still manages to be a satisfying finale to the series, while adding depth and shading to the world—magical and otherwise—of the earlier books.