The Short Version: Having been kicked out of Fillory, Quentin Coldwater finds himself at somewhat loose ends. After a series of bad turns pairs him up with Plum, a younger magician, he begins to find a new meaning for his post-Fillorian life – but Fillory has it’s own problems: Eliot, Janet, Josh, and Poppy have discovered that apocalypse is coming. It’s a race against time to save their world and for Quentin to maybe save himself.
The Review: It’s funny how Lev Grossman’s trilogy has managed to find its way into my hands at exactly the right moment for each book. The Magicians, I’d just graduated from college and the parallels of the big adventure when you’re still way too young to understand the world were obvious. A few years later, Quentin’s listlessness in The Magician King, his malaise of spirit, was uncomfortably familiar to me – and the shock of the last pages, that seemingly unsurmountable challenge (with the promise of a third volume to come) was a sort of odd hope during darker times. And now, a little older and a little wiser and decidedly a little different from the [relative] boy I was when the trilogy started, I see myself in Quentin yet again.
I bring all of this up just to say that the trilogy has a particular resonance for me. At a party last weekend, a friend picked this galley off of my desk and said that she’d hated the first one and when I’d said I loved it, it reminded me of college… she gave me this look and said, “I guess college wasn’t that bad for me.” And I couldn’t understand what she meant. These books have never been rosy and happy – they’ve featured the dark, cutting things that people do to one another purely because they can. And this book – an older, more mature book to be sure – is no different. Quentin’s story strikes such a different chord from the story of the Kings & Queens of Fillory and it almost threatens to capsize the book at times. As delightful as Eliot’s sass and Janet’s acerbity might be, at the end of the day they are gallivanting around a magical kingdom. That’s pretty awesome, no two ways about it – but it also doesn’t necessarily pull the same emotional weight. Their struggle is literally the end of the world but you never feel as connected to that as you to do Quentin’s, which isn’t even necessarily depressing – just one of those “lives of quiet desperation.”
Although this is not to say that Quentin’s plot is more interesting, necessarily. You just feel it more. In fact, there are some huge pacing problems with the Quentin half of the book – especially in the middle third (once we establish what got him to that bookshop that opens the novel, things slow way down – even once we get back to New York). But I wonder if that wasn’t Grossman’s intention, to some extent. After all, it’s time that has worked on Quentin more than anything else. And he has changed, decidedly. It’s not immediately obvious and when an old face reappears to confront him, accusing him of having not changed… you can see how that old face might believe that. And you might be forgiven for wondering, as the reader, if that old face might not be right. But Quentin does some serious legwork in proving it – over the course of the whole book and, really, over the course of the trilogy – and you end up believing the change. On that note, the trilogy ends beautifully: with Quentin, having left his twenties, fully come into himself. Isn’t that how we all want to leave our twenties? I know I do.
But on another note, the trilogy’s end is… well, it brings the idea of the series back home to its Narnia roots, for sure. The great apocalyptic endgame is a myth all too rarely played out in this particular way (there’s a sense, always, that our magician friends are safe – which, while lessening the danger, allows for the much more interesting possibility of “what happens after a world ends?”) and while it felt a little too neat at times, the final ‘resolution’ of sorts in the penultimate chapter spoke quite nicely to the point of that neatness. It was a reference (yet another, in this trilogy of them) to Tolkien, I think, and I really enjoyed it.
Hell, I really enjoyed all of Grossman’s references in the course of the trilogy. He managed to take that pop culture tic of wearing influences on one’s sleeve and turn it into a nerd’s-paradise sort of storytelling: it’s not that he’s showing off what he knows, but it’s that we’re saying “oh, I totally get that” and we build on the traditions together. It’s hip to the idea that references and such don’t necessarily mean shoddy storytelling – they’re more like Easter eggs.
Grossman’s language, too, is doused in the present moment. These characters talk like my friends and I do – and they act like them, too. We all (characters and real people) curse and tell stories and make snarky comments in the same way: with a love for language, for the bond it creates between us – and with an almost flippant disregard for its true power. Or maybe it isn’t a flippant disregard but rather a brazen acknowledgement of it, believing that we can master that power. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just too in love with words right now. But if I ever ended up in a magical land, I’d want a smartass like Eliot and a vicious tongue like Janet with me. It’s more fun that way. I laughed my ass off when a message from Eliot late in the novel began with “thick plottens” – because that’s the sort of thing that, well, makes me laugh my ass off. And if you find that sort of smirking goofiness annoying, then we don’t want you here. Physical Kids only.
Rating: 5 out of 5. A touching, subversive ending to an absolutely crucial modern fantasy trilogy. It features all of the things we might expect from a concluding volume but Grossman manages to keep those things fresh, lensing the ideas of old stories through a modern filter. I remember when they likened the first book to Harry Potter – something about college and wizards and, sure, okay – but honestly? I spent my childhood with Harry, but I think I grew up with Quentin. Bravo.