The Short Version: Two years have passed since Quentin Coldwater returned to Fillory with Julia, Eliot, and Janet. And to be honest… he’s getting a little bored. Being a king is fun but there’s a distinct lack of adventure happening – so he strikes off to find an adventure and ends up sailing across the Eastern Ocean. His journey takes him back to Earth, to the End of the World, to the Underworld – and all the while, Julia’s story is revealed to us.
The Review: Oh wow. I don’t even know what to say. The last ten pages of this book are heartbreaking. There’s a Patrick Wolf song called “Wolf Song”, from his first album, that has this lilting longing quality to it – one of my favorite lyrics, “the moon, let it guide you and I shall find you a home in our heartland and a heart in our homeland.” The violins and plucked strings of that song came unbidden to my mind as I watched Quentin reach the end of his quest and SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
to see him lose everything… It is crushing. It is tragic. It is almost unbearable. And it is a moment of immense literary achievement, especially considering that the book that came before felt a bit ho-hum.
Lev Grossman has talked about this series becoming a trilogy and, unfortunately, this book suffers from middle-story syndrome. It has all the elements of what should be a rip-roaring adventure, mirroring itself on perhaps the most excitement-packed Narnia novel (“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”) and stories like The Odyssey and that of Jason & the Argonauts. There is something, even in this modern age, distinctly and uniquely exciting about setting out on an open, uncharted sea. Even space exploration, the closest thing we’re going to get to that adventure until we find another planet akin to this one and promptly scuttle all of the technology that allowed us to get there, doesn’t have quite the same breath of adventure that setting sail into unknown waters has. So I can’t figure out why, then, this book feels so strangely neutered.
There’s a dullness to the whole thing, an almost clinical approach to the story. This may have a greater meaning – or it might have something to do with my real-life circumstances. After all, when reading The Magicians, I had just graduated from college and so I was right there with Quentin. That book was written for me to read at that moment in my life. That listlessness that comes from just having graduated, that uncomfortable entry (with no hope of going back) into what can only be defined as the Real World. This book, set two years later, sees Quentin struggling with what it means to be a grownup. That longing to find an adventure where things have become a bit mundane. We all laugh (as the kids did) at the idea of the fantastic becoming mundane… but human beings are remarkable in that they can become accustomed to just about anything. That’s what happens to the kids in Fillory: they get used to being Kings and Queens. We’ve all grown up seeking more, needing to continue to strive, that when we hit a point where we could potentially do something called “relaxing”, we’re immediately restless. We feel like there has to be more. But the thing is, maybe all you really needed was to embrace what you already had. Cliche and sappy, I know – but isn’t that what happens to Quentin? This is a big question posed by this novel and not just for Quentin but for Julia as well. Her story, her plot that parallels that of Quentin’s time at Brakebills, is all about her being unable to find more and then when she does (in a horrifying sequence that I had to shut my brain off to for fear that it would create unbelievable nightmares), it results in death and destruction. The scene with the calling-of-the-god is just….
But it’s more than that. And that’s what makes these books so much more real than any other fantasy happening right now. The book is, yes, about this quest to find the seven keys and save Fillory from the end of magic – a plot that any author would be happy to whip up; it’s basically a license to have fun – but Grossman ignores that and makes the plot actually about depression. About what it’s like to suffer depression and how you combat it. Because Quentin and Julia both suffer from it – but it just manifests in different ways. Julia’s is the quintessential black dog while Quentin’s is more of a restlessness, a lurking malaise. They both experience a release of that depression and, by the end of the novel, become something more. They deliver themselves from out of the darkness; it’s just that it happens in ways neither of them could have anticipated.
To me, this is what made the book worthwhile. Would I have liked to have seen a bit more adventure? Absolutely. Moments like the god scene, the swordsmen tournament, the snow-covered Neitherlands (also incredibly eerie), even the assault on Benedict Island, were few and far between. There’s nothing wrong with embracing the magic, the surreal, the adventure that comes from going full-on sword-&-sorcery. Hell, Quentin doesn’t even do that much magic in this book. The mundane realities that inform all of these character are important: they’re what make these books so different from every other urban modern fantasy on the market. I just wish Grossman would let himself have a bit more fun now and then. Take us on a rip-roaring adventure – let us see what Eliot and the Muntjac got up to while Quentin & Julia were stuck on Earth, don’t just tell us. Also, take a few less shortcuts. It felt like every time Quentin got stuck somewhere, there was some backdoor loophole that allowed him to get back to Fillory. Of course, even as I say that, I realize that those loopholes are what made that ending so incredibly powerful to me – he had exhausted every single one. So maybe I take that back, Mr. Grossman (the shortcuts part – still would love a bit more fun and ‘needless’ adventure).
Rating: 5 out of 5. Until those last fifteen-ish pages, I was solidly believing this was a 4. It had moments of sheer terror, sheer wonder – and moments of utter mundanity and banality. Even moments of adventure were written with a blasé hipster kind of ‘tude. But then that ending. The song welling up in my head unexpectedly, the raw emotional power that seemed to radiate off of those pages… A firecracker of an ending after a book that was a little short on spark. I cannot wait for the third book – indeed, I hope Grossman decides to take the fetters off and write us a modern day seven-book Narnia series. Make it five, like Plover’s Fillory series. I don’t care. Just don’t limit yourself to a trilogy – my generation, we need more stories like this. We grew up on Narnia and Potter – but the world is a lot darker than that and so a series like this will always have a place.