The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman
I was very excited about this book, thanks to the first two awesome books in the trilogy and Lev Grossman’s visit to the Southern Festival of Books. It lived up to my expectations, and that’s saying a lot.
As this book begins, Quentin has been exiled from Fillory and is trying to find his way back. A new character, Plum, is introduced, an expelled Brakebills student with a secret family connection to Fillory. There are a few Fillory artifacts on Earth they try to steal. Quentin resolves to save Alice, his ex-girlfriend who sacrificed herself at the end of the first book and became a niffin (a kind of demon), and he and Plum attempt a spell to create a new magical world. Alternating chapters relate events in Fillory, which is on the verge of an apocalypse. Later in the book, we learn more about the Chatwin children and their original trips to Fillory. The weirdness and imaginativeness of the magical world and the way the narrative revels in the cool things fantasy allows characters to do are still hallmarks of the series.
Theological implications come up when you’re talking about bringing someone back from the dead and/or creating a world, and Grossman dealt with these about as gracefully as possible. He leaves it pretty open-ended because he seems not to have an agenda, or to be agnostic. I have the urge to compare this ending with those of the Narnia books, with their explicit Christian overtones, or the His Dark Materials trilogy, in which God dies and the final words are “the Republic of Heaven.” While I appreciated Grossman’s avoidance of didacticism, I found both of those other endings more inspiring than this one, but I don’t think Grossman was hoping to inspire in exactly the same way. In those books, the inspirational beauty happens to the passive protagonists, while in this one, the protagonist is the one doing the work and making the amazing things happen. Though what happens is still pretty awesome, some mystery or something disappears when the happy ending isn’t just handed to you. Maybe this reflects a difference between children’s/YA literature and adult lit: it’s like the difference between waiting for Santa to arrive and playing Santa for your own kids. That seems utterly appropriate to Grossman’s vision of this series as fantasy for adults.
A passage near the ending summarizes what I like so much about this series: it describes perfectly a feeling I grew up with and that I’m still constantly chasing. This series is one I wish I’d written because it is about this feeling and its pursuit. I just want to quote it at length:
“This is a feeling that you had, Quentin,” she said. “Once, a very long time ago. A rare one. This is how you felt when you were eight years old, and you opened one of the Fillory books for the first time, and you felt awe and joy and hope and longing all at once. You felt them very strongly, Quentin. You dreamed of Fillory then, with a power and an innocence that not many people ever experience. That’s where all this began for you. You wanted the world to be better than it was.”