Lev Grossman's The Magicians trilogy takes Harry Potter, Narnia, and other stories and tropes and mashes them up into something new. It left me with lots of complicated thoughts that I’m still trying to sort out and for that alone I’m grateful for this series.
I usually try to avoid spoilers when writing about books here but this time I'm making an exception. If you want to avoid spoilers, stop reading here. If not, here are some of my thoughts:
The trilogy starts out as a coming age / figuring out life in your 20s story. At the beginning of the first book Quentin is a high school senior. He’s at the point of in life when it feels like you’re waiting for life to begin, as if one’s current situation isn’t actual life. Quentin gets that life-is-starting-now moment when he finds himself sitting in a room taking an entrance exam for Brakebills, the one and only magical college in North America. It all seems so promising, so fun and exciting, and then it isn’t. Turns out that doing magic is well, less magical than one might expect. It requires memorization, mastering precise hand movements, and learning ancient languages. One thing that I found odd (and that I'm still wrestling with) is that in Grossman's conception magic is not fun. It can be fun at times, but mostly it is tedious, hard work. Not only it is hard, in a way magic ruins people. Magic makes some parts of ordinary life (like holding down a job) easy if not unnecessary. Without something to care about Quentin and his friends spend their post-college days drinking and partying, which ends up being less fun than it sounds. It's like they one the lottery but don't know what to do now that they no longer have to work to pay the rent.
In the first two books Quentin is forever looking for an adventure. He is never happy with what he has. This would be a less annoying trait if he were working toward something. For instance, if you’re dream is to build the best widget and your first prototype is good but you know you can do better so you keep trying, then it is good to not be satisfied. That is drive; that is motivation and ambition. Quentin’s dissatisfaction with life is more about it never being like it is in the Narnia like Fillory books. Quentin’s whole concept of adulthood is wrapped up in a fantasy and when confronted with the reality of day-to-day life he’s bored. But instead of building a career or a relationship he just goes looking for another adventure. Even more annoying is that Quentin never anticipates the potential dangers of his adventures. It is like he expects life to be like a children’s story where there is always a happy ending.
One of the most interesting characters in the series is Julia. Julia sat for the exam Quentin did but failed. I think I, as a reader, am supposed to feel sorry for Julia or feel that she was unjustly treated in this instance. I don’t. When Julia tells her story in The Magician King (book 2) she remarks that Quentin walked into the exam room “buckled right down and killed that exam, because magic school? That was just the kind of thing he’d been waiting to happen his whole life.” The way I see it Quentin and Julia were faced with an unexpected opportunity. Quentin grabbed it and went with it. He didn’t think too hard about it; he just accepted it and decided to see where the opportunity would lead. Julia, in contrast, sat back and thought about what the opportunity might mean. I don’t fault Julia for the way she reacted. It was totally reasonable under the circumstances, but I don’t feel sorry for her either or feel she was treated unfairly. She had the same chance as Quentin and didn’t take it. There is something to be said about being open to opportunities and ready to grab them when they come sailing by.
Notwithstanding my lack of sympathy for Julia’s initial rejection by the world of magic, I totally loved her journey (well except for the part I’ll get to in a minute). After failing the exam her memory was supposed to be erased of all things magic and Brakebills related but it didn’t take. Julia remembered, not all of it but there was a thread of something that kept nagging her. She grabbed that thread and ended up institutionalized and multiple prescriptions for anti-depressants. Once again Grossman made magic not fun. In The Magician King it is practically a symbol for mental illness. Mental illness diagnosis notwithstanding, Julia went and found magic on her own, Brakebills be damned. And she wasn’t the only one. I love the idea that there was this underground world of magic. One of the things in that struck me about the first book was not only that magic was boring, it was elitist and exclusionary. Outside of Brakebills all kinds of people are doing magic.
Julia ascends up the ranks of the magical world and becomes the best there is. More importantly she finds a home among other prescription carrying depressives. Together they dig for the roots of magic and end of stumbling upon a demon trickster god who kills most of them and rapes Julia. This was infuriating. Not only that she was raped, but that she loses her humanity. She becomes a powerful goddess in the end, but exactly what is the message here?
Another interesting character is Alice. She came from a magical family. After her older brother died while at Brakebills the college decided it was best to cut ties with the family and declined to invite her to attend to the school. Alice forced her way in anyway and and she was brilliant. She hooks up with Quentin. They are cute together, then they are horrible to each other. Then she dies in book one, or rather she becomes a ball of blue rage and power. Quentin brings her back to life and she is not happy about it, at least not at first. I’m not sure what to think about this particular sequence. Did he do the right thing? He was trying to help her. He couldn’t have known that she liked being a ball of rage and power.
The ending was not entirely unexpected, but still pleasing. Fillory was dying and Quentin has to figure out a way to save it. He does save it, but he also moves on and decides to create his own land, which is fitting. It is time for him to grow up and create something for himself. It was a good ending to the series.
Although I am not entirely sure what to think of this series I would recommend it for the simple fact that it gave me lots to think about. This is the kind of book I could talk about for hours.