It’s appropriate that I find myself coming to this one on the heels of The First Law trilogy, as this rounds out another trilogy of high-fantasy deconstruction literature, albeit one that I’ve generally liked a whole lot more. Anyway, I’d sort of like to critique this one more than I’m probably going to, but in fairness, the things that I found implausible were the things that I just said made The First Law so unpleasant in parts. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but maybe a little implausibility in fantasy literature really makes it work.
First thing – if you didn’t read The Magicians or The Magician King then for God’s sake don’t start here. The second volume gave little refreshers so that you’d know what was going on, but this one only gives the barest of occasional reminders as to who people, places, and events were, usually foregoing them entirely. So, go read those first. But since the events of those novels are so prominent here, I will not have any compunction in referring to them. I’ll try not to spoil this one too much, but those two are fair game.
All right. Let’s recap a bit. In The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater was introduced to the magical world via a first-class magical education at Brakebills. After graduation, though, he had nothing in particular to do, ended up cheating on his girlfriend Alice, and in an attempt to salvage this relationship took her and all his other friends on what he assumed would be a light-hearted fantasy adventure in the enchanted land of
So, Quentin learned the hard way that the world didn’t necessarily revolve around his needs, although it was Alice who paid the ultimate price for that lesson. In The Magician King, Quentin has become one of four monarchs of Fillory, and is still looking for purpose in his life. He decides that another quest would be just the thing – then gets sidetracked and involved in another quest, since magic is leaking out of all the worlds. It turns out that his former high school classmate and co-ruler Julia is responsible for that. She was rejected from Brakebills and ended up searching for magical power; she eventually got it, but at the cost of having her humanity stolen by a rapist trickster god, and furthermore summoning the god in the first place led to the great powers in the multiverse shutting down the loopholes in reality that allowed magic to operate at all. Quentin actually saved the day this time himself, but agreed to take Julia’s punishment for the whole fiasco, and ended up being banished from Fillory and forever banned from the Far Side, which we never saw but which was described as a magical world’s magical world. Julia herself embraced her now demihuman-demigod state, but passed out of the story, so far as we knew.
This novel begins in medias res as Quentin Coldwater, now in his 30s, is taking stock of his life as he peruses literature in a chain bookstore in New Jersey and waits to see who, like him, has come about a grey market magic job. You immediately notice the change in him, and in the narrative style. Grossman’s grown up too, and it shows, and Quentin is still noticeably himself but without being such a whiny prat. In fact, the narrative specifically says that Quentin finds himself no longer thinking about everything in relationship to what it means for him in the future. Instead, he is simply taking events as they come, thinking a little more deeply about things. It turns out that he’d gone back to Brakebills, and they’d taken him in again as an adjunct professor, where he had a small room, a research project and regular meals, and was thinking about not very much. How he went from there to getting involved in a heist orchestrated by a magical talking bird takes a little while to explain.
As it happens, Quentin is haunted by his past. No, really, I mean his ex-girlfriend Alice who is a demon now has been sort of following him around. He’d assumed that she was as close to dead as you can get without in fact being dead, but is now having to reevaluate this, although whether there’s anything he can actually do to or about her is an open question, since she’s channeling power on a completely different scale than Quentin does, or can. Obtaining resources to tackle this problem is part of how he finds himself contemplating magical crime for money.
The first book followed Quentin only. The second followed Quentin and also Julia. This one has three major perspectives – Quentin, his friend and High King of Fillory Eliot, and a Brakebills alumnae by the name of Plum. All magicians are pretty weird, and Plum is not an exception, and unfortunately she’s not given a whole lot to do. She’s not undercharacterized, exactly, but she’s there primarily because of her family relationship to the plot, and she’s also there specifically not to sleep with Quentin, which for some reason everyone asks about. To their credit, neither one of them seems especially enthusiastic about the idea in the first place. I suppose she’s also there to show what Quentin looks like through other eyes, which as you might expect is quite competent but a little goofy. And Eliot doesn’t get that much screen time, but what exists is pretty fun.
Quentin deals with four father figures in this novel – his real father, a quiet, inoffensive man who Quentin believes doesn’t actually like him all that much; Dean Fogg, the somewhat irascible but reasonably well-meaning head of Brakebills; Professor Mayakovsky, the deranged Russian magician living in self-imposed Antarctic isolation; and Ember, the Ram God of Fillory and all-round enigma. His interactions with these four set the tone for most of the events, and show his increasing maturity as well. For my money the encounter with Mayakovsky is the comic highlight of the book. He was previously portrayed as a weird dude, and here he is again, dealing with Quentin on something of a more equal basis this time. I say “something” because it’s clear that Mayakovsky is the greatest magician alive, and possibly the greatest ever. He is also more or less insane and drunk most of the time on some sort of moonshine that he ferments out of . . . well, Quentin didn’t really want to know, and come do think of it neither do I.
Before too long, Quentin finds himself in possession of a couple of powerful spells; one of which literally floats down on him as he is hanging out in the space between worlds, the other stolen from the underbelly of Fillory itself. These spells help make Quentin finally take the remaining steps from adept to true master, and also reflect the increasing maturity of this novel. In the past, the more flashy aspects of magic have been restricted to fireballs, shield spells, and other destructive sorts of pursuits. This time, there’s much more subtlety as magic is used to make things, and the nature of magic as a fundamentally creative enterprise is explored for the first time.
There’s also some destruction, of course. If the first novel was a send up of (among other things) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the second one did The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, this one picks up The Last Battle. Early on, Ember announces that the end is nigh, and that Fillory is going to be destroyed. Didn’t that happen last time, you ask? Well, sort of. Fillory isn’t just a magic land, it’s made of magic, so the threatened destruction of all magic in The Magician King would have resulted in its loss too. But this has nothing to do with that, it’s just one of those things. It turns out that it’s not the first Fillorian apocalypse either. And this time, when threatened with the impending destruction of Fillory, Quentin does not immediately leap into action without thinking, and he does not sulk and complain.
He ends up involved anyway, of course.
His intervention and the book in general end up tying up or resolving most of the loose ends that have existed throughout the entire series. It’s obvious that Grossman is a huge continuity nerd, and in truth I appreciate this. Little details are nice. It’s apparent that Grossman loves this world and has affection for these characters, and it shows on every page.
I don’t want to spoil too much or give away the ending, but the thematic troubles I have with this book are related to that same love. Quentin took quite a beating in the first two books, and Grossman has now decided to throw him a bone here. There’s a happy ending, which is nice. In fact it’s so nice that it sort of elides the previous beatings. If the message of the first two books was believing in magic does not equip you to deal with the realities inherent in existing among other people, the message of this one seems to be stick it out long enough and you’ll get everything you want. If you’re good enough, you’ll save the world and get the girl – even if the girl herself may not be all that into the idea. She’ll come around. For that matter, the events just seem to unfold on rails especially in the last half of the book - keep on plugging and it'll all work out somehow. It's destiny, man.
In a way, this message is entirely antithetical to everything that’s come before. But at the same time, this is the best written and most internally coherent of the three novels. At the end of a fantasy novel, can I really be that upset about a little fantasy fulfillment? Not too much. Maybe a little bit.