I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!” – C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle
The Magician’s Land, the new novel from New York writer and Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman, begins with an epigraph (“Further Up and Further In!”) drawn from C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, the final book in The Chronicles of Narnia, which details the destruction and rebirth of the fantasy world Lewis spent seven novels exploring and revealing. It’s an appropriate choice, capturing as it does the sense of loss and of hope which characterizes Grossman’s novel, the third in The Magicians trilogy, an envoi and a valediction to both Fillory, the world he has created, and to the cast of characters he has followed from the earliest days of their adulthood.
The novel begins with Quentin Coldwater, the main protagonist of the trilogy, exiled from Fillory. Coldwater is, naturally, devastated: Fillory is the land for which he had yearned since his childhood – when he discovered it in a series of English children’s books – and which he discovered to be real in the trilogy’s first instalment, The Magicians. While his surviving friends remain behind as kings and queens of Fillory, Quentin returns to his alma mater Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, as an instructor in, of all things, Minor Mendings. Even that job is short-lived, however, and Quentin falls in with a magical heist, a group of “hedge witches” (non-academic, self-taught practitioners of magic) brought together, Oceans Eleven-style, to steal an unopenable valise.
Meanwhile, things in Fillory are falling apart. Literally. The country is invaded by forces from the north, but this incursion is only a symptom of deeper problems. As High King Eliot and Queen Janet discover, the country is dying around them, and there may be nothing they can do to save it.
All of the above, of course, will make little sense to anyone who hasn’t read The Magicians or The Magician King, the previous two novels in the trilogy. And that’s as it should be: while each of the three novels does stand, somewhat precariously, on its own, they are designed to be read as a group. As a result, it’s virtually impossible, and somewhat unfair, to talk about The Magician’s Land in isolation.
The Magician’s Land is rooted firmly in the development of the trilogy’s characters; this is a magical bildungsroman of the highest order. Quentin demonstrates the greatest growth, his previously relentless self-interest shifting into something altogether more generous, more selfless. His relationship with Plum, herself a Brakebills’ cast-off, is the first mature male-female relationship of Quentin’s life, guided by mutual support, rather than the self-doubt-driven lust of his previous – even platonic –relationships.
But it’s not just Quentin. Even Eliot, the louche borderline alcoholic, shifts as a result of his role as High King: the crown itself seems to reshape him into a steward of the land. And what becomes of Julie, who failed the Brakebills entrance exam in the first book and underwent her own education and trials outside of the system, must be experienced to be fully appreciated.
The kids are growing up.
It is magic, though, that is at the heart of the trilogy, and The Magician’s Land demonstrates, conclusively, the costs associated with the spells one casts. Lives are lost, or fundamentally altered, as the result of an errant word, or a misguided goal, and Grossman never flinches from the very human toll that must, at times, be paid.
It is tempting, of course, to compare the Magicians Trilogy with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels (as George R.R. Martin did in his blurb for The Magicians) or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books (which seem to be a more significant influence on Grossman), but such comparisons falter in the face of the trilogy’s metafictional self-awareness. The characters are realistically depicted as immersed in the soup of pop culture, with constant name-checking and references to video games, movies and, of course, books. At one point Grossman writes, “It reminded her of the floating castle at the end of The Phantom Tollbooth. Hell yes, it was Disney. Disney FTW!” Later, a senior magician remarks, “But you, Quentin, you I understand. You are like me. You have ambition. You want to be great wizard. Gandalf maybe. Merlin. Dumb-bell-door.” This referentiality contributes to a sense of hipster-magician verisimilitude, but it also creates a uniqueness to the world which Grossman is creating: taking into account its own influences and indebtedness, it creates a closed sphere in which it can truly come into its own.
And come into its own it does. The Magician’s Land serves as a capstone to one of the great literary fantasy trilogies of our time, a work which not only rewards reading, but actually improves with re-reading. Readers who initially read the novels as they were released would be well advised to invest the time to read all three books as a unit; taken together, the resonances which develop, the complex overlappings of time and space, take on the fundamental qualities of a spell themselves, Grossman weaving magic out of mere words.
As it should be.