There is a certain type of novel that seems to have been written especially for readers who have read a lot of books. These books are written by authors who elevate story above all other concerns and offer an immersion into (sometimes literal) other worlds. From Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea to John le Carré's Cold War Europe to Alexandre Dumas’ France of any number of eras, these worlds and the books they live in reward awareness of context and literary conventions. They invite willing readers to suspend disbelief and offer up the familiar to the initiated only to later subvert it.
Beginning with the 2009 novel “The Magicians,” Lev Grossman’s books about Quentin Coldwater, young American magician, have been easy to recognize as fitting onto a shelf of that special library alongside their clearest influences: C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia,” J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, and T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King.”
While chronicling the dissolute, disenchanted magical coming of age of Quentin and his friends in “The Magicians,” “The Magician King” and now “The Magician’s Land,” Grossman makes it clear in the deepening complexity and widening scope of each volume that he understands the pleasures and perils of stories and believing in them.
In the first book, Quentin, devotee of a set of novels collectively known as “Fillory and Further” (detailing the adventures of the English Chatwin children in a land called Fillory), discovers that magic is indeed real — as is Fillory. He finds his way to Brakebills, a college for magicians in upstate New York, where he forms tight bonds with several classmates, including the gifted Alice (who becomes his girlfriend), the lazily talented Eliot and wittily aloof Janet, sparing hardly a thought for Julia, the high school crush he left behind.
Quentin’s travels to the Narnia-ish realm of Fillory do not exactly fulfill his fantasies, however. Instead, he loses Alice, who sacrifices herself to save Fillory, becoming a malevolent creature known as a niffin in the process. The sequel follows Quentin, who has become the dissatisfied king of Fillory, but also Julia, who has darkly clawed her way to magical power through the back-alley safe houses of the supernatural world.
The trilogy’s conclusion, “The Magician’s Land,” triumphantly answers the essential questions at the heart of the series, about whether magic belongs to childhood alone, whether reality trumps fantasy, even whether we have the power to shape our own lives in an indifferent universe.
Grossman conjures a sprawling canvas for his finale, split among several viewpoints — Quentin, of course, but also Eliot, Janet and sly new character Plum — placing them in exhilarating circumstances where they must choose to fight or flee, create or destroy, mature or regress.
Like its predecessors, “The Magician’s Land” cues in the reader early about the context and conventions that will be invoked. It begins with a nearly 30-year-old Quentin trying out for a heist crew in a bookstore and being hired by a talking bird to recover a mysterious suitcase, complete with a reference to “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” and language worthy of Chandler. The MacGuffin in the suitcase proves an essential unifier, bringing together the threads of past and present in the quest to obtain it and understand the importance of its contents.
But this is only partly a thriller. Janet and Eliot quickly discover that Fillory is speeding toward the end of the world in apocalyptic, Tolkien-esque fashion. As the narrative boomerangs back and forth in time, filling us in on what happened in Fillory after Quentin’s departure while detailing his foray into crime, it revisits many favorite locales and characters.
Brakebills and its faculty haven’t changed much, and neither has Brakebills South. What has changed is Quentin and his friends. The prolonged adolescence they have suffered is finally coming to end, along with the possible end of Fillory’s magical world.
There is still plenty of anxiety to go around about the relationship between child- and adulthood, and whether the heroic notions of stories like “Fillory and Further” belong to one or the other. A lost narrative of a Chatwin brother turns up. He writes: “Reading the Fillory books you would think that all one has to do is behave honorably and bravely and all will be well. What a lesson to teach young children.” But tragedy in these books comes from people not behaving with bravery or honor, and ultimately victory comes when they do. Perhaps it’s the only kind of heroism possible and not such a bad lesson after all.
This trilogy is not, as it is so often described, “Harry Potter for adults.” But it is a meditation on whether magic cake can be eaten happily or whether it would go stale when exposed to the bitter air of a more realistic treatment. Maybe, this masterful close suggests, both real and fantasy worlds have space for heroes and magic.
If there is a sense of wish fulfillment, of darkness denied and champions triumphant, it only makes it more bittersweet to leave. We may not be ready to depart for some new land, but Quentin is.
Bond is the author of the forthcoming novel “Girl on a Wire.”
The Magician’s Land
Viking: 401 pp., $27.95