The world is full of magical coming-of-age books... and they generally don't show much of what happens after the age has come. We only glimpse thirtysomething Harry Potter. But in The Magicians Land, Lev Grossman uses his meta-fantasy world to create a thoughtful portrait of what it's like to be a functioning adult.
Top image: Christopher Shy, via Lev Grossman.
Actually, there won't be that much in the way of spoilers here. The plot isn't exactly the point, in any case. But suffice to say, we catch up with a 30-year-old Quentin Coldwater, who's just lost everything. He was a King of Fillory, the magical realm he used to think was pure fiction, but then he was expelled. Then he became a teacher at Brakebills, the magic school he'd attended in the first book, only to be fired after an unfortunate incident. Now, he's picking himself up and trying to start over.
You would think this would be the setup for a dark, grueling story of Quentin putting his life back together — but actually, it turns into a breezy, somewhat introspective book about Quentin realizing that he's already put himself together just fine, and that life is about dealing with setbacks without falling apart.
As the novel begins, Quentin gets recruited to take part in an impossible heist, along with a collection of offbeat characters including his own ex-student Plum. And you sort of expect that this will be a traditional "heist gone wrong" story, and there will be a McGuffin, and Quentin and friends will end up falling out or being hunt. But instead, the heist just sort of provides a jumping-off point to a much more unconventional tale of self-actualization and fixing old mistakes.
Call it a "staying of age" novel. Or an "arriving of age" novel, maybe.
And meanwhile, we also get some chapters from Plum's POV, which mostly gives us another vantage point on the world of magical society and the land of Fillory, which Plum turns out to have a familial connection to. And there are also chapters following Elliot and Janet, among the current Kings and Queens of Fillory, as they put down an attempted invasion and realize there's a deeper underlying problem.
Grossman understands that adulthood is about being on an even keel, and a lot of the most fist-pump-worthy triumphs have to do with just maintaining. Or being competent and self-aware. Along the way, Quentin deals with the death of his father, and just gets quietly better at magic — his skills get more practiced and more developed, just because he's been doing it for longer. But he's also forced to recognize his limits and realize he's never going to be the Greatest Ever.
The best part of these books has always been the magical nerdery, and the involved descriptions of the mechanics and rules of magic. And The Magicians Land takes this to the next level, with a lot of very intense geeking-out about forms and approaches to spell-casting. At one point, someone talks about the appeal of figuring stuff out, and say "Give a nerd enough time and a door he can close and he can figure out pretty much anything," which becomes kind of a motto in the book.
There's also a really nice theme of books and the love of learning here — this novel starts in a bookstore, and Grossman comments that any place with bookshelves is halfway home. And books and weird texts become more and more important in unraveling the mysteries (global and personal) in this book — including the truth about Christopher Plover, the author of those Fillory novels that everyone read as kids.
Quentin's main task in this book turns out to be fixing some stuff that went wrong in the first two books, and undoing some of the results of his own past arrogance.
Not only is Quentin no longer such a dick, but he's surrounded by super-competent, clever women — who have had their own coming-of-age stories. Janet, who was part of the group in earlier books, really stands out this time around and gets a totally badass storyline involving some obnoxious desert barbarians. At the same time, one of the biggest disappointments in this volume is that we don't see much of Julia, the "hedge witch" whose storyline was the best (and most upsetting) part of the second book.
Art by Matt Schoch
Meanwhile, we finally get to the bottom of the magical land of Fillory... and it turns out to be a whole lot of duality. There are not just two ram gods of Fillory, but a lot of other doublings. The notion of confronting your own dark side, or the worse version of yourself, runs through this book in a really interesting way without ever being quite signposted.
Once again, the story turns big and kind of apocalyptic towards the end. But the real stakes remain small and personal, and the big triumph is the conquest of anhedonia rather than any great heroic deeds. As the conclusion to a trilogy which started out feeling like it was about disillusionment as much as enchantment, this is a terrifically empowering and even uplifting conclusion. And it's a great, entertaining payoff for fans of the first two books.