“The Magicians”, “The Magician King” and “The Magician’s Land” by Lev Grossman
In anticipation of the TV show “The Magicians”, I decided to reread the young adult trilogy by Lev Grossman. For those who are unfamiliar with the books and/or the young adult (YA) genre, they follow Quentin Coldwater as he navigates a world filled with magic. A well-known critic refers to the first book as “The Secret History crossed with Harry Potter”; the second as the “descendant of the Chronicles of Narnia” (lots of Voyage of the Dawn Treader in this one) and he isn’t wrong in that description. The third book, however, pulls everything together in a satisfying conclusion to the series. For me, the books held up the second time around which is a credit to the author who not only delves into various adventures but deeply into self identity, mental illness and the complex journey from youth to adult. These books are not your typical simple, straight forward YA novels.
The first book, “The Magicians” spends most of the time at Brakebills, which is a college for magic. Quentin is a brilliant but very unhappy and dysfunctional guy. He falls in with a small but rather bizarre (albeit brilliant) crowd consisting of other magicians with similar skills; Elliot, Alice (his love interest), Janet and Josh. They visit the magical land of Fillory which had been written about in books that Quentin loved as a child and turns out to be real. Also introduced is Julia, Quentin’s high-school crush who fails the test to get in to Brakebills and is absent for most of the book.
The second book, “The Magician King” follows the Quentin, Julia, Janet and Elliot as they travel to Fillory where they save Fillory twice with serious losses each time including ultimate expulsion for Quentin from the land where he is a King. We also learn Julia’s back story and how she spent years learning magic in a non-traditional way. By the end of the book, Alice is gone – becoming a Niffin and Julia’s path has led her to a non-human form in a new world and Josh is back along with a new character “Poppy”. In the process, we have been led down so many complicated paths that not much stayed with me between my first readings of the books and this second read several years later.
The third book is the “Magician’s Land” in which we find Quentin trying to establish a presence back in the real world. He manages to get a faculty job at Brakebills and no reader of the books is remotely surprised when he gets into trouble and is banished from the magical school. The incident involves a new character, Plum, a descendent of the first English children who visited Fillory. Her future becomes entwined with Quentin’s. Suffice it to say that through magic, Quentin finds himself after much soul searching and a new set of adventures.
Grossman has woven a beautiful tapestry of the human psyche and the search for self. As he engages us in this effort, he does a powerful job of making his female characters the most developed and interesting of all. They have a complexity and understanding of life that is much further along than their male counterparts. The third book brilliantly pulls all of the threads together so don’t give up after the first two thinking this is just a depressing tale of young adults trying to find themselves. Finish the work of art that is the third book.
In comparison to the books, the TV show is poor. Don’t bother to watch it. Go to the source material and lose yourself in this well constructed trilogy. You’ll be surprised at how complex this YA trio of novels is. There will certainly be people out there who don’t care for YA novels, or a world of magic/fantasy or a tale involving dark and depressing teens/young adults and I totally get it. This isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea but if you are open to a different genre, take a chance.