Further up and further in!
—C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle
Finally! Lev Grossman had sought to use a line from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as the epigraph for The Magician King, but the intricacies of intellectual property law prevented it. Truth be told, the proof of The Magician’s Land had a line from Act II of Waiting for Godot as a placeholder. There’s a certain resonant symbolism in the reconciliation.
Quentin Coldwater has lost everything. He has been cast out of Fillory, the secret magical land of his childhood dreams that he once ruled. Everything he had fought so hard for, not to mention his closest friends, is sealed away in a land Quentin may never again visit. With nothing left to lose he returns to where his story began, the Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic. But he can’t hide from his past, and it’s not long before it comes looking for him. Meanwhile, the magical barriers that keep Fillory safe are failing, and barbarians from the north have invaded. Eliot and Janet, the rulers of Fillory, embark on a final quest to save their beloved world, only to discover a situation far more complex—and far more dire—than anyone had envisioned.
Along with Plum, a brilliant young magician with a dark secret of her own, Quentin sets out on a crooked path through a magical demimonde of gray magic and desperate characters. His new life takes him back to old haunts, like Antarctica and the Neitherlands, and old friends he thought were lost forever. He uncovers buried secrets and hidden evils and ultimately the key to a sorcerous masterwork, a spell that could create a magical utopia. But all roads lead back to Fillory, where Quentin must face his fears and put things right or die trying.
Grossman recently quipped during the “Rulers of the Realm” panel at San Diego Comic Con, “I recommend this to writers just starting out. You begin with Narnia, and then you systematically defile and degrade every part of it.” The Magicians followed Quentin and the Physical Kids through wizarding school and by fits and starts into the Narnia-esque analogue Fillory. The Magician King sent him on a dimension hopping adventure to save magic itself. This final installment deals with the end of the world, maturity, and the elision of fiction and reality.
I really haven’t been a Narnia fan for long, but I’m probably a Narnia fan forever. And despite what he glibly implies, so is Lev Grossman. Consummate Lewis readers will quickly notice the scaffolding of The Last Battle, Narnia’s apocalyptic conclusion. The novel’s take on it is informed by T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and reconstituted within The Golden Bough.
They’ll also recognize The Silver Chair and echoes of The Horse and His Boy. Don’t worry, though, The Magician’s Land, so cleverly preserving the parallels between the Chronicles, reimagined and represented, requires no knowledge of the originals. That’s part of the magic, you see. Elements of His Dark Materials and The Once and Future King reverberate throughout a structure that’s sound and solid. The story stands on its own.
This book, maybe more than the other two, is directly about the experience of reading, of interacting with fiction. Grossman has evolved into a deft fantasist over the last several years, but it’s when he’s writing about books that he approaches the numinous. He conjures a library, for example, that will live alongside the Library of Dreams from The Sandman and Borges’s “The Library of Babel” in the hearts of generations of nerds.
Passages that take place easily, unpretentiously within the character’s points of view magically speak directly to the reader. This can be difficult to explain without, perhaps, spoiling the text.
Still, it’s important enough that I should try.
I can probably count on one hand the number of paper books I’ve read in the past two years, so it’s easy to forget that many of my digital editions would look a lot like this were they physically manifest. There’s a paragraph, once the action really gets going, that essentially details what you see here in my annotations.
It could pass simply as a clever bit of character interaction. But some readers, like the ones I mentioned at the end of our review of The Magicians, will have to smile back at the book. It knows what we’re doing. Grossman celebrates it.
In so many ways, the series has been about literally entering into the text. A metaphorical device becomes reality for the protagonists. In The Magician’s Land, we’re reminded again how delightful the myriad methods of moving between worlds can be.
We travel back and forth inside the narrative, into and out of recursive realities. We assist in the working of the spell, ramifying, remembering, and reintegrating in widening loops, “piling effect upon effect, each one multiplying the next.” We become co-creators.
In the end, it’s difficult not to see The Magician’s Land as a rescue mission. As Grossman giving something back; repairing, reassembling and returning the fantasy he played so rough with in the first two novels. It’s not the same toy he borrowed, but it’s whole. The differences are subtle, the incisions noticeable, the seams are sewn tight.
Recommended for Kings, Queens, and Magicians. And readers.