Source: Purchased audiobooks
Penguin Audio, 2009, ISBN 9781101079423; Audible ASIN B002L7KSR0;
Penguin Audio, 2011, ISBN 9781101523674, Audible ASIN B005GIH6EY;
Penguin Audio, 2014, ISBN 9780698153622, Audible ASIN B00K8EXJEM
There are definite advantages to waiting to read a series until after the author is finished writing it, but that wasn’t a deliberate choice I made with Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy. Although the books have been on my radar for several years and my interest was piqued during Grossman’s conversation with John Green at the 2012 LA Times Festival of Books, I honestly didn’t develop a desire to read them until they were all done. The third and final book in the series, The Magician’s Land, was one of the hot galleys at Book Expo 2014 last spring, and my friend Kim’s excitement over it made a big impression on me. In a recent post at Book Riot, Kim elaborated on why these books have made a big impression on her:
“When The Magicians came out in 2009, nearly every review described it as Harry Potter for adults – I even talked about it that way when I wrote about it on my own blog. And in many respects, that is true. In The Magicians, kids who discover they have magical powers go to a magicians’ college where they learn the intricacies of magic and play a magical sporting event with arbitrary rules. It’s exactly what could have happened to Harry if Hogwarts were for teenagers, not children.
“But midway through the story, the students at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy graduate and head out into the real world to face the challenges of recent college graduates, terrified at the prospect of being real, functioning adults for the first time. As the series progresses in The Magician King and The Magician’s Land, Grossman sets out to wrestle with increasingly complicated questions: What happens when the thing you’ve always wanted doesn’t make you happy? What does it mean to be heroic? How do you redeem yourself after catastrophic failure?
“…(T)hese books [again] gave me the unique reading experience of growing with characters over time. Like the characters in Harry Potter, the characters of The Magicians aged as I did and grappled with the same questions that I was trying to answer at the same time. When college spits you out into the real world, full of optimism and talent and real possibility, how do you decide what to do next?”
I remember those “Harry Potter for adults” assessments of The Magicians when the book first came out, and I remember thinking I didn’t feel a particularly pressing need to read such a thing. Now that I have read it, I’d be more inclined to describe that first book as a Harry Potter/Chronicles of Narnia mash-up. It felt cheerfully, almost proudly derivative to me, and I was quite surprised to find that I was barely bothered by that at all… because somehow, despite the obviousness of its influences, Grossman really has managed to do something original here. That said, the originality emerges much more gradually than the inspirations do, but by the second book in the series, The Magician King, it’s fully apparent, and each book in the series does seem to be an advance beyond the last.
The Harry Potter books make a clear distinction between the magical and non-magical worlds; Grossman’s boundaries are far more fluid. The “fictional” Narnia stand-in of Fillory is both “real” and fully magical, but at the same time, magic is an operational and accessible force in such real-world locales as Brooklyn, Greenwich Village, Venice, and suburban Boston. The magical instruction offered at Brakebills College gives Grossman’s core group of characters–Quentin, Alice, Elliott, Janet, and Josh–a formal education in this world; others, like Quentin’s high-school friend Julia and her “hedge-witch” associates, learn the craft on their own and on the fly. Over the course of the novels, they will all learn that there are questions that magic can’t answer, choices that it complicates, and outcomes it can’t prevent.
This series is a gift to those of us who never wanted to outgrow the magical worlds of our favorite childhood fantasy novels–Quentin and his friends get to go and live in theirs, as adults (and rule it as kings and queens!). But it’s no happily-ever-after. In Fillory and in the “mundane” world alike, they confront and struggle with love and loyalty, sex and death, power and its misuse, and what contributing, productive adulthood is supposed to look like. The originality of The Magicians comes through in Grossman’s remarkable melding of the fantasy, fantastical elements with the developing, deepening maturity and humanity of his characters.
The characters’ growth in the Harry Potter series was more literal, and when it was finished, it felt like their future courses were pretty well set in place. The Magicians essentially begins at the point where the Potter books end, and as it follows its characters through over a decade of attempts to figure out their future courses, nothing ever truly feels “set”. Perhaps it’s that open-endedness that ultimately defines this series–even more than the language and sex and violence–as being “for adults.”
I’m glad I let Kim convince me I should read this series. I’m glad I was able to read all three books back-to-back-to-back, I’m glad they got progressively more engaging and involving, and I’m glad that The Magicians, The Magician King (my favorite, if I have to pick one), and The Magician’s Land accompanied me for nearly 50 total hours of driving time. I didn’t entirely love Mark Bramhall’s voice characterizations across the board, but I did love the way Grossman’s story grabbed hold of me and stayed in my head for weeks. I hope I get the chance, someday, to let it do that again.
Book descriptions, from the publisher’s website:
Plume (2010), Paperback (ISBN 0452296293 / 9780452296299), 416 pages
Like everyone else, precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater assumes that magic isn’t real, until he finds himself admitted to a very secretive and exclusive college of magic in upstate New York. There he indulges in joys of college-friendship, love, sex, and booze- and receives a rigorous education in modern sorcery. But magic doesn’t bring the happiness and adventure Quentin thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends stumble upon a secret that sets them on a remarkable journey that may just fulfill Quentin’s yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than they’d imagined. Psychologically piercing and dazzlingly inventive, The Magicians is an enthralling coming-of-age tale about magic practiced in the real world-where good and evil aren’t black and white, and power comes at a terrible price.
The Magician King
Plume (2012), Paperback, (ISBN 9780452298019 / 0452298016), 416 pages
Quentin Coldwater should be happy. He escaped a miserable Brooklyn childhood, matriculated at a secret college for magic, and graduated to discover that Fillory—a fictional utopia—was actually real. But even as a Fillorian king, Quentin finds little peace. His old restlessness returns, and he longs for the thrills a heroic quest can bring.
Accompanied by his oldest friend, Julia, Quentin sets off—only to somehow wind up back in the real world and not in Fillory, as they’d hoped. As the pair struggle to find their way back to their lost kingdom, Quentin is forced to rely on Julia’s illicitly learned sorcery as they face a sinister threat in a world very far from the beloved fantasy novels of their youth.
The Magician’s Land
Viking Adult (2014), Hardcover (ISBN 0670015679 / 9780670015672), 416 pages
Cast out of Fillory, Quentin Coldwater returns to the place his story began, the Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic. All too soon, however, his past comes looking for him, and Quentin sets out to face his fears and put things right—or die trying. Filled with riveting battle scenes as well as intriguing new characters and the return of beloved favorites, The Magician’s Land brings Grossman’s epic tale to its magnificent conclusion.
Opening lines of the trilogy:
“Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.
“They picked their way along the cold, uneven sidewalk together: James, Julia, and Quentin. James and Julia held hands. That’s how things were now. The sidewalk wasn’t quite wide enough, so Quentin trailed after them, like a sulky child. He would rather have been alone with Julia, or just alone period, but you couldn’t have everything. Or at least the available evidence pointed overwhelmingly to that conclusion.
“’Okay!’ James said over his shoulder. ‘Q. Let’s talk strategy.’
“James seemed to have a sixth sense for when Quentin was starting to feel sorry for himself. Quentin’s interview was in seven minutes. James was right after him.
“’Nice firm handshake. Lots of eye contact. Then when he’s feeling comfortable, you hit him with a chair and I’ll break his password and e-mail Princeton.’
“’Just be yourself, Q,’ Julia said.”