Revisiting The Magicians
This essay is rampant with spoilers from the start, although I begin with a 2009 book. If you haven’t read The Magicians trilogy and don’t want any reveals, don’t read on. TW: Sexual assault is discussed in the context of the trilogy and a specific scene.
When I first read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (2009) six years ago, it made me angry. The book seemed like it had a lot of promise, but it felt like a slog in parts, and its central anti-hero, Quentin Coldwater, is a pain in the ass. He’s a wannabe Holden Caulfield — you can even hear the echo in his name.
Part of the book’s issue is how its narrative works: roughly the first 3/5ths of the book is about learning magic and personal relationships, and then the remainder shifts elsewhere and becomes about everything being broken: broken people, broken gods, broken watches, broken windows. There’s an unconvincing happy ending, which is a segue into the sequel.
Quentin is a moper and irritating, and he achieves his life’s dreams, one after the other: magic is real, he’s recruited to a secret wizard school that only Hermione Granger could love (magic is hard, mathematic and linguistic, and mutable), he falls into a serious and deeply sexual relationship with a brilliant, beautiful young woman, and then he finds out that the fantasy land of a book series he loved as a child and never gave up on is an actual place. But it’s all a chimera.
He manages to ruin his enjoyment all those things for himself and others, and seem like a selfish, peevish person whose greatest concern was moving to a fantasy world forever. When he finds out the magical, mystical land of Fillory is full of fully realized and complicated living things and a thoroughly evil god-like creature, all the joy is gone, though he does see things through. When he and his friends “win,” it’s a pyrrhic victory, which he barely survives, though he uses that pain to shrive himself further, and become the wizard he never was.
There’s a wonderful moment near the end when he shoots the very real Questing Beast, which grants him three wishes. He starts by asking for three things that are beyond the scope of the Beast’s purview, and it is gracious and counts them all as one. His second wish is generous (to pay off a ship’s crew that transported him). His third, given there’s nothing left for him, is to return home. (This is transplanted to a different point in the TV series, which doesn’t follow the same narrative, and appears in season 2. It’s one of the most moving passages of that season. That ship voyage tracking the Beast also reminds me strongly of a scene at the end of A Wizard of Earthsea.)
Quentin is deeply problematic, because despite the author fleshing out other characters perfectly well, and generally imparting them some kind of consistent inner life, Quentin himself sees everything else as the backdrop on which his story plays. Other characters, including his girlfriend Alice, call him out on this, though, and I feel like I missed the extent to which Quentin’s behavior is treated as an issue within the story on my first reading. People aren’t letting him get away with it as much as I recalled. (To jump ahead for a moment, The second book has what I’d say is a perfect meta-moment of Quentin looking at the world’s greatest swordfighter: “Bingle turned to face the wind. He seemed to be living out some story of his own in which Quentin was just a minor character, a chorus member, without even a name in the program.”)
He also categorizes all women as desirable or not, and measures their worth and nature in relation to what he wants from them. He thinks he loves Julia, but he just desires her, and treats their friendship — which she cherishes, even though she knows his feelings toward her — as not far off from a “friendzone” style piece of resentment. He uses this against her when he gets into Brakebills, the magic school, and she doesn’t, and the routine memory wipe the school does doesn’t stick for Julia. (File that for later, as there’s a resolution.)
Someone he thinks is an EMT — but turns out to be a critical person in the story he winds up in — is so beautiful to him that even though he’s just encountered a dead body, the narrator comments extensively on Quentin’s reaction. He repeatedly thinks about the physical appearance and his sexual desire for the Brakebills teacher who figures out a magician’s specialty; she’s done nothing to provoke this, and it’s kind of gross, although not out of keeping with a 17-year-old just pulled out of his senior year of high school. His relationship with Alice is more honest than that. But after graduation, when he sleeps with one (or two) of their group when he and Alice are monogamous, he is devastated that he’s lost her; when she screws another in the group, he is incandescent in rage and pettiness. Janet, who he slept with, he thinks essentially seduced him.
At the end, after a fight in which Alice dies (an out-of-control use of magic turns her into a purely magical, not-really-living amoral being), when he’s recovered and is working in a well-paid sinecure that the wizarding world funds for wizards who can’t find something useful to do or go off and exercise their ennui in private, he gets rescued by friends who plan to take him back to Fillory, where he’ll be one of the four kings and queens.
A rex ex machina, and I guess that solves everything?
The book identifies fundamental problems with magic: that the practitioners have enormous power and not enough to do with it; that magicians tend to be not very well-adjusted people, and their flaws are what give them the obsession and toehold into making magic at all; that magic existing at all might be something broken in the universe; and that the universe is effectively meaningless. In a freestanding book, interesting concepts, but left hanging. (This extreme power allowing all possibilities, thus offering no challenges and a dead existence is maybe commentary on extreme wealth, but the very wealthy often lack the ennui described here.)
Side note: Harry Potter is surprisingly a thing in their universe, with no mention of whether Rowling knows magic is real, but the Narnia books are not. The Earth side of things is presented in reference to Harry Potter, given that magical training in The Magicians apparently only starts at a college level; Fillory is much more directly a Narnia parody at times, but it also has its own integrity. In Grossman’s presentation, Quentin expects Fillory to always be jolly, as it largely is in the in-universe books, but it ignores somewhat that Narnia can be very dark and death lurks. There’s a good gag about how the Fillory books progress to become didactic and pained in the last volume, which is commentary on C.S. Lewis’s rather boring The Last Battle.
I’m rather on the record about my feelings about The Magicians, as I appeared on an Incomparable podcast episode we titled, “Like ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ Except Crappier.” (On the same episode, we discussed Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, which I loved to pieces at the time, and recently re-read and found it just as creepy and sweet and perfect.)
Grossman spotted our show announcement with the title in it, and was a good sport:
I often say that anger is the mark of great work in a perverse way, just like ecstasy. Indifference is the enemy. If a work moves you to strong feelings, it’s accomplished something, even you’re spitting nails because of how bad it is. The Flophouse is part of my must-listen podcast rotation because the goofy and clever folks who host this bad-movie show largely find movies that require a special genius to have made so badly. Some are from auteurs of awful.
I didn’t think much of The Magicians for a few years, except occasionally grumbling about it when it was brought up. One day I was visiting the nearby library branch, and spotted the third book in the series, The Magician’s Land (2015), on a recommended shelf. I hadn’t bothered to even consider the second book, The Magician King (2012), assuming it would be more about an even more self-obsessed and confident Quentin.
But I picked up The Magician’s Land, wondered what might have happened to everyone, and checked it out. I was enthralled. This was something totally different, I thought. Quentin is still the main character, sort of, and he’s still kind of mopey, but he’s not only moved forward, the story is no longer fully centered on him. Among other resolutions, the women in the story, who were seemingly ignored, killed, and (in the second book, I discovered later) abused have come to the fore. They all reach remarkable heights in which the men have supporting roles. Quentin becomes a ladder they climb, even though he has some great moments of redemption and action himself. (In the TV series, season 3 develops this notion of Quentin turning from the mopey ditherer into someone who can make hard, no-win decisions that are necessary.)
The Magician’s Land ends with Quentin briefly becoming a god, but he assumes that role not because it benefits him or because it’s a reward for hard work. He doesn’t ascend to godhood. Rather, he has to kill two gods to end Fillory, but then the power descends on him, and he uses his magical specialty, “the mending of small things,” at a planetary scale. It’s sweet. And then he relinquishes the power. The land is now existing of its own volition. Julia appears, now shifted from a demigod to what she says is a three-quarters god, but it’s not her land, either.
This third book redeemed the first for me, as it made the first book into the first act, not a self-standing work. It caused me to re-evaluate what made me angry, because it was largely transformed and resolved in The Magician’s Land without pretending things never happened. That’s a huge problem with later sequels in many fantasy and sci-fi books, in which the writers “retcon,” or solve earlier problems by unsatisfactorily waving them away.
With some worry, based on what I’d heard about difficult parts in the second book, I finally read that one, and though I didn’t think it was as strong as the third, all the pieces fit together. I don’t know if Grossman had plotted these three novels out with the structure he did while writing the first. But they feel of a neat interlocking set.
The Magician King starts this shift, by making Julia’s story just as important as Quentin’s: it starts in the “present,” a while after the end of The Magicians, but nearly every alternating chapter takes us into Julia’s life. It fills in the missing pieces, shows how Quentin and other magicians’ decisions affected her, and reveals how far she went to try to gain a new kind of power from relatively pure motives. She and several others fail to become gods, and they wake the old gods who start to wipe magic out from the universe, seeing it as a flaw.
The turning point for Julia is when one of the minor deities, who answers an invocation for a major one, kills her friends and rapes her. It’s problematic not as a plot point, but because it starts a transformation: the god effectively removes her “shade,” which is equated to something like a human and persistent part of the self in the books — it’s not well developed and the TV series makes more of it — but essentially impregnates her with the potential to become a god, which germinates and flowers by the end of the book. Again, the TV series does a vastly better job addressing how troubling this is, and the trauma of it, but in the book, Julia is able to transcend her experience and becomes something different. (And the god, Reynard, is killed off stage in book 3.)
While book 2 Quentin has finally decided to mature, he’s still running after quests and visions. Other people still suffer for his decisions, notably Benedict the mapmaker. But at the end, it’s Julia who has ascended to her divinity, Quentin accepted his guilt for leaving her behind (and thus leading to nearly the end of magic in the universe and Fillory in particular), and gives up nearly everything he thought was due him in the first book, and delivered to him by the beginning of the second. In his interaction with the effective gatekeepers of a door at the End of the World, he thinks:
He’d thought he would carry his share of that unhappiness for the rest of his life. Now, suddenly, he had shed it when he least expected it, and he felt like he was going to float up into the air. He had atoned, that was the word for it.
No good deed goes unpunished. Because he accepted the blame for summoning the old gods, he also pays the price: he’s dethroned as a king of Fillory, and sent back to Earth. He says to one of two gods of Fillory, “I am the hero of this goddamned story, Ember! Remember? And the hero gets the reward!” “No, Quentin,” the ram said. “The hero pays the price.”
This leads into book 3, where it starts with Quentin at rock bottom — it takes a bit before we find that he landed on his feet returning to Earth before he fell ever further. But the book isn’t about his redemption so much. It’s about his atonement. He doesn’t save damsels, but he puts himself continuously at risk with higher and higher stakes until he gives everyone else a chance to save themselves. And he doesn’t cast the women in the story into sexual roles, either, something the author had him and other characters do, even sympathetic ones or by putting the thoughts into the minds of Julia or others in book 2. (We also finally get Janet’s story, though it’s told by her in retrospect, and it’s her recounting a story. It’s a little shoehorned, but she gets her due and becomes complete.)
Quentin ultimately becomes a redemptive god: he creates a new body for Alice and calls her back, he kills Fillory’s dying gods to keep the land from dying, he takes the mantle of a god to revive Fillory (but then gives it up), and then he creates his own land, which is how the series concludes. He’s longer part of his callow youth.
I’ve re-read The Magician’s Land about four more times since that initial surprising encounter, and just re-read the first two books before writing this essay. The Magician’s Land holds up better, because it’s the sum total, and it’s more rewarding: we see the resolution and maturity that comes out of everything that preceded it, for Quentin and everyone else. Everyone gets to have an apotheosis. Even Plum, a minor character introduced in book 3, has less of a journey, but she helps close the loop on the Chatwin family and her heritage.
I can’t think of any of series of books, where the later entries caused me to view the earlier ones in a new light — except in a worse when, when I became dissatisfied with changes. Grossman pulls off a neat trick here, with a Lord of the Rings style arc that spans several hundred pages, albeit without all the camping and hiking in that series or in Harry Potter.