Eager reader of history, mystery, classics, biographies, steampunk, lit fic, science, scifi, and etc. My reviews are mostly positive--I rarely finish or write about books I don't enjoy. My TBR is too high for that.
I’ve had a tempestuous relationship with this series by Lev Grossman. The first book I started out liking--I loved the idea of a secret college for magicians in upstate New York--but in the end I rated The Magicians only 2 out of 5 stars, a bit harsh in retrospect because I read it straight through and I don’t finish books I don’t enjoy. My complaint was that the plot wandered as aimlessly as its snooty-smart, ennui-filled, self-involved teenage main character Quentin, who irritated me.
I wouldn’t have even tried the sequel, The Magician King, except I was intrigued when I heard Grossman mention in an interview that he was only planning one chapter for Julia’s part of the story--as Quentin’s early crush she was a minor but significant character in the first book--but instead of playing a similarly small role in the second she ended up taking over half of the book. Julia was tested for but not invited to attend the formal college of magic Quentin went to, and in the second book we learn how she ends up sort of jumping off the grid and teaching herself spell casting in the gritty underworld of safe-house magicians. Her hardscrabble back-story captivated me so completely I just skimmed through the chapters that didn’t involve her. When I recently listened to audiobook versions of the first two books in preparation for reading the third there were whole sections of The Magician King I didn’t remember.
I enjoyed both earlier books a lot the second time through, even many of the parts I disliked the first time, and the third book is an awesome conclusion that had hooked me from its opening chapter to its final pages. Quentin is thirty now, and has had his impossible childhood dream of living in the Narnia-like land of Fillory come true, and then fall apart. He’s trying to live like an adult and make amends for some of his past actions, which involves him in a hair-raisingly dangerous team-work heist of magical objects. But it’s Janet who really got to me this time. She had been little more than a self-proclaimed bitch in the first two books, but a chapter in Magician’s Land about a solo adventure she had is so mesmerizingly moving that as soon as I finished it I went back and read it through again--something I’ve never done before.
There’s plenty of gripping high-stakes action throughout this series, but there’s also a kind of thoughtful introspection. Grossman considers what it might really be like, both the difficulties and the beauties, if we had magic, here, in our modern but imperfect world. What if its difficulty meant only geeky nerds were smart and obsessed enough to learn it, so magical powers necessarily mixed with angsty adolescent gawk? And how would those social misfits handle the potential emptiness of purpose that could come if it was possible for them to do or have just about anything? What forms might religion or gods take in such a world, and what roles might they play?
I think when I read the earlier books the first time I was looking for something cozier--to the extent that the Harry Potter series is cozy--but now I love how Grossman explores the psychic innards of his characters while giving them plenty of room to grow, and I’m highly impressed with his storytelling skills, his world building, and his ability to develop and run multiple interesting plot arcs and see them all through to a fitting and satisfying conclusion. I think this is the final book in the series, but I’m really hoping there will be more.
The Magicians--originally read 2009, reread 2014
The Magician King--originally read 2011, reread 2014
The Magician’s Land--read 2014