LitStack Review: The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

by Sharon Browning
The Magician’s LandMagicians Land
Lev Grossman
Release Date:  August 5, 2014
ISBN 978-0-670-01567-2

It was funny about magic, how messy and imperfect it was.  When people said something worked like magic they meant that it cost nothing and did exactly what you wanted it to.  But there were lots of things magic couldn’t do.  It couldn’t raise the dead.  It couldn’t make you happy.  It couldn’t make you good-looking.  And even with the things it could do, it didn’t always do them right.  And it always, always cost something.

Quentin Coldwater has been cast out of Fillory.  That magical land of the beloved children’s stories – that magical land which turned out to be very real, where he had once been royalty – had cast him back to the “real” world, forcing him to leave behind his friends, his fame, and the woman who he thought he had loved and now had irrevocably lost.

But Quentin is okay with it.  He understands why he had to come back, what his role was in saving Fillory, and while he now was just one more run of the mill magician trying to make a living, he wasn’t going to waste time and energy pining for what was gone.  He had been able to slip right into a job as junior professor at Brakebills (the only American school for magicians, where he and his friends had been students before they crossed over into Fillory), so he actually was pretty lucky.  One could even say he was peace with what had happened.  (“Maybe when you give up your dreams, you find out that there’s more to life than dreaming.”)

That is, before he gets caught up in a schoolgirl’s inelegant prank which quickly escalates to the point of putting the entire school in danger – as well as revealing that Quentin’s “lost” girlfriend is trapped between worlds, but as a niffin – an undead demon filled with immense rage and power.  That prank got the girl, a senior by the name of Plum Polson Purchas, expelled from Brakebills and lost Quentin his job.

And it is before he receives a letter that mysteriously shows up in his pocket, with a potential freelance magician job offer for showing up at a particular bookstore at a particular time on a particular day.

Quentin answers the summons and finds himself – along with the aforementioned Plum (who had received her own mysterious letter) and three others – with a somewhat daunting task laid before them by a talking crow and his rather mountainous henchman.  They are to locate a stolen suitcase, break through an incorporate bond (a magical spell that locks an object and is supposedly unbreakable)and obtain the items inside the suitcase, while holding off the two master magicians who consider themselves the current owners of the suitcase (“…our claim is superior to theirs” assures the talking bird when queried if re-obtaining the suitcase would be considered thievery).  What is unknown is the exact location of the suitcase, the surety of being able to break the bond, what might be of such great value in the suitcase, or what other complications may arise.

Welcome to the world of magicians for hire.

And, since this is a Lev Grossman novel, complications do arise, not the least of which is that Quentin’s friends back in Fillory – High King Eliot, his Queen and now wife, Poppy, and Queen Janet – are in even more dire straits:  Fillory is dying, and damned if it seems like there is anything they can do about it – as if that would keep them from trying.

The Magician’s Land is the third and final installment in Lev Grossman’s “Magicians” series, all of which incorporate strong Narnia vibes, heavy Harry Potter influences (the students of Brakebills even allude to the Harry Potter novels in places, such as using the term “muggle” as a substitute for their own non-magical persons nomenclature of “mundanes”, and alluding to “patroni”, as in multiple patronus spells), and even a nod to Tolkien here and there.  But it ain’t Narnia, it ain’t Hogwarts, and it sure as heck ain’t “Lord of the Rings”.

In other words:  these aren’t your kids’ magicians.  No wands necessary.

You definitely will want to have read the other two books in this series before attempting The Magician’s Land.  Author Grossman does not waste any time on exposition – and there’s a lot that you need to know in order to enjoy this book.  But once the pieces are in place, the story soars.

And it’s written so splendidly, this book more so than even the two preceding it.  The broad arenas for the tale are magical realism and magical fantasy, but the voices in both are modern and recognizable.  Cheeky, even.  It’s a more mature, more world-worn cheekiness; not the smart aleck, brashness of youth (except in the characters who are, well, smart aleck-y, brash youths).  For instance, this paragraph describing Quentin and Plum’s attempt to break the incorporate bond:

At first it was fun:  it was a dense, rich, genuinely hard problem, and they attacked it with a will.  The issue of the suitcase’s Chatwin connection receded to the back of Quentin’s mind as they scribbled flow charts on hotel stationery, then on reams of printer paper filched from the business center, then finally on a fat roll of butcher’s paper from an art supply shop.  The spell kept ramifying into more and more secondary and tertiary and quaternary spells, to the point where they had to color-code them, and the color-coding eventually ran to a full 120-count pack of Crayolas.  Quentin and Plum argued more vehemently than was strictly necessary over which colors should go with which spells.

I know, right?  You can totally see it, can’t you?  And that’s maybe the best thing about the “Magician” books by Lev Grossman – even though they deal with magic, even though they incorporate a school for magicians and a land that was supposedly imaginary but turns out not to be and that can only be accessed by a few select children who then become royalty over that land, even though they have magical creatures and magical doings and horrors and dangers that we “mundanes” cannot see – we can see.  The books not only feel real, they feel feasible.

Yet there is also little of the “if only” yearning  of other magical feasts, in The Magician’s Land, especially.  There is little wistfulness in author Grossman’s prose, no romantic glamour, no matinee idol mythos – just beautiful, engrossing, otherworldly situations and ways to express them.  Convoluted.  Deeper and not always pretty as we want them to be.  Cranky, sometimes.  But so often, oh, so wonderful.  (Just read the section where Quentin and Plum morph into being a blue whales for a journey across the Drake Passage to the coast of Antarctica – not because they have, but because it would “cool” to be a blue whale – and you’ll see what I mean.  After reading that section, I didn’t want to morph into a blue whale myself, but it was amazing experiencing it through Quentin’s senses, both human and cetacean.)

Good stuff, that.  And a fitting ending, which tends to be a rare thing in this age of “leave the door open for another sequel”.  After reading The Magician’s Land (and the other two books in the series), I’m not going to dream of Fillory or pine longingly for an entrance at Brakebills – but I have a sneaking suspicion that the books themselves will stay with me a lot longer because they are so self-contained, so complete, so full.

Very good stuff, indeed.

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