It really starts, as it always does in this kind of story, when the hero’s father dies. Returning from his father’s funeral, Quentin Coldwater uses a spell to light a candle, and feels a buzzing in his hands that alerts him to a new power in his magic: “Something had broken loose in him. He was truly alone in the world now, no one was coming to help him.”
The thing about Quentin is that no one has ever been coming to help him; not in the way that he needs. There’s no savior, nor is there even any pre-ordained quest. In Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land, magic doesn’t make things any easier — only more interesting.
In the first book of the series, Quentin finds entry to the magical land of Fillory, a place he’d formerly believed to exist only between the covers of a series of children’s novels. In the second book, he rules for a time as king of that land before being exiled and stripped of his crown. Now Quentin has tried to “go straight” by taking a teaching position at Brakebills, his magical alma mater.
But in the process of saving a student from her own prank gone wrong, Quentin encounters Alice, his ex-girlfriend who died to save him at the end of the first book. Alice now exists as a malevolent being of blue fire, a “niffin”, neither dead nor fully alive. Because he cannot bring himself to subdue her, as is his duty as a professor, Quentin is fired from Brakebills.
The student he has saved, Plum, is expelled, and they meet again when they are asked by an anonymous backer to join a team of thieves. The object is a sealed briefcase that formerly belonged to one Rupert Chatwin, the now-deceased personage on whom Quentin’s beloved Fillory books were partly based. Plum has a unique tie to the heist, being the last living descendant of the Chatwin family, though she’s completely unaware that Fillory truly does exist.
There have been other books about how magic might work in the real, modern world, but not so many books about how magic might work with real people. Real people don’t get to sublimate their every disappointment into a single epic quest in which they are the heroes. Real people, when they get what they’ve wanted, usually find a way to be dissatisfied with it somehow. Or, as in Quentin’s case, they’ll find a way to remain dissatisfied with themselves.
But his father’s death changes Quentin. As long as his father was alive, there was always the hope that he might be pleased by Quentin, that he might even be someone worth pleasing. It occurs to Quentin that perhaps his father was a magician whose emotional distance and inattentiveness were a result of an effort to protect his son.
Quentin’s father, however, was not a magician, and the realization that his father did not live up to his expectations frees Quentin from the unreasonable ones he holds for himself. He finally finds his specialty (repair of small objects: “think smaller… like a coffee cup,”) which one of his colleagues attributes to his newfound maturity: “…I couldn’t find your discipline last time because you didn’t have one yet. I always thought you were a bit young for your age.” The dean of Brakebills will tell him, “You were always one of the clever ones. Everyone saw it but you. If you hadn’t been so busy trying to convince yourself you didn’t belong here, you would have seen it too.” Quentin’s emergence from his 20s sees the diminishing of his self-loathing and self-pity, and grows his character in a way that does credit to Grossman’s careful work with him over three books.
Other characters are less developed, but more fun. (Quentin has always been kind of a drag, if a realistic and intermittently relatable one.) In particular, Janet, Quentin’s former classmate who still rules as a queen of Fillory, remains deliciously angry and selfish. Even the Fillorian high king and fellow Brakebills alum Eliot is simultaneously baffled and impressed to find out that, though she can be kind and brave, Janet really has no soft gooey center. In her case, it’s “turtles all the way down,” so to speak, and it’s hard not to bear her the same kind of love/hate her cohorts have for her.
Julia, a main character in The Magician King, plays only a supporting role here, but the loose ends of her story are gathered and tied. Alice is more difficult to fathom, since as Quentin’s love interest she is viewed primarily through his eyes.
This is understandable but disappointing at the same time. Grossman has a lot of character and plot to manage, and he does it with uneven finesse. He has so many stories and people in his head that they stream out at times in an unwieldy fashion. The writing itself can be smart and hilarious, as when Grossman shifts his third-person voice out of Quentin’s head to match the cadences of either Janet or Eliot’s thoughts. Other times it lapses into lazy descriptions the book could do without altogether.
Maybe it’s the magic. I don’t really care that much. If there are too many stories in The Magician’s Land, they are all stories I want to hear, not least because they are so well-connected to stories I have heard before in different contexts. A primary feature of the series has been the self-conscious borrowing of themes and plot threads from famous fantasy novels, most obviously The Chronicles of Narnia, and this third book continues in that vein, borrowing from, among other sources, media as varied as The Neverending Story, The Ring of the Niebelungs, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Fans of the first two books will be well satisfied with the final installment. It has most everything they might expect, and enough of what they won’t to keep them as vested in the action as ever Quentin hoped to be.