There is a strict criteria applies to my modest collection of physical books that I do keep around. There are childhood favorites that I want to share with Ruu; The Neverending Story, The Hobbit/LotR, and The Chronicles of Narnia fall into this category, and I can’t wait until she’s old enough for me to share them with her. I also keep books that I read during key milestones of my life. I first read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone over Christmas break in 2000, isolated in the bleak cold of South Dakota. I’d just started dating a girl that would one day become my wife and the mother of my child. After devouring the first three books over the break, I found out that she had recently discovered them too and our shared love brought us closer together. I remember feeling a little insecure about admitting to her that I loved them and her reciprocation was as much a surprise as a relief. I think it was then that started falling in love with her.
I also have a few signed editions that carry stories of their own–adventures with friends in attaining them, or the kindness of strangers who thought of me when they didn’t have to. My best friends and I went on what was my very first (and only) cross country road trip to Greenwich, CT to meet Stephen King and get a copy of The Dark Tower signed. Most recently a wonderful online friend got to meet Patrick Rothfuss where she so kindly purchased, had signed, and shipped me a copy of The Name of the Wind. Every time I look at that book on the shelf I am reminded that there are amazing strangers in the world, and that I should make an effort to engage with them whenever possible.
The point of all this is that the books I own have a deep emotional resonance of some kind. I enjoy almost everything I read, but when a story moves me to want to revisit it again and again, it’s truly something special. I remember stumbling across Lev Grossman’s wrote The Magicians as I shelved books at the library. The title alone put it on my to-read list, and the cover art is still one of my favorites ever. I’ve just finished the third and final installment of the trilogy, The Magician’s Land and it officially qualifies as a must-own series for several reasons. Many describe The Magicians Trilogy as “Harry Potter for adults,” but I think that description is insulting to fans of both series. It’s insulting to the Harry Potter camp (of which I belong) because it implies a sort of low-brow connotation about the series, and The Magicians fans because the similarities between the two works are few and tenuous anyway. Giving any book a catchphrase summary completely ignores its complexity and I hate doing it. But for the sake of contrast, The Magicians is better described as, “Harry Potter meets Trainspotting.”
Yeah. Let that sink in for a minute.
You might call The Magicians Trilogy a coming-of-age story, but it’s not. It’s a story about what comes after. There is a problem of scale with coming-of-age stories. Generally, these stories run their protagonists through a gauntlet of confusing situations which are often humorous, small triumphs, and dramatic tragedies all of which temper the malleable youths into something older and wiser than they were at the start. Their experiences have equipped them with the tools they need to navigate the world of adulthood. What coming-of-age stories don’t tell their protagonists is that the wider world is even more complex than the scale of their experience. What they have learned is not always applicable, and they’re still in the shallow end of the pool. The 13 years that spans The Magicians Trilogy deftly handles all of that journey.
In The Magicians, disillusioned protagonist Quentin Coldwater learns that the world is a wider and more wonderful place than he realized when he learns that magic is real and that he has been accepted to study it in the arcane Ivy League setting of Brakebills College. His expectations are quickly dashed when he realizes that magic doesn’t solve anyone’s problems. College doesn’t automatically set him and his friends on a path to grand destiny, and upon graduation they are left floundering. One of the blessings of the Harry Potter books is that we never have to see how mundane life must be for the wizards and witches after Hogwarts. Not everyone can be Aurors and Quidditch stars, right? Even when The Magicians turns into a quest narrative, things don’t turn out as expected. A recurring theme of the trilogy likes to dwell on the fact that the world is a complex and scary place and whether you live on Earth or in Fillory, a magical Narnia-like fantasy world, neither one really gives a shit about you or your hopes and dreams. It’s a hard lesson, kids, but it’s the reality even in fantasy. Quentin has lost much by the end of the story. His innocence. His leg. His lover, Alice. As the novel comes to a melancholy but hopeful close, Quentin seems to have earned some wider perspective in the classic coming-of-age story fashion.
The Magician King is a draught of cold water on this rose tinted perspective. Quentin has gotten his reward. He fancies himself a seasoned adult with all the perspective. He’s a hero and a king; and he’s earned it through pain and loss. In spite of getting everything he wanted, he finds that he is just as wayward and dissatisfied as he was in the first volume. Something still isn’t right. So he embarks on another quest with the hopes of finding that missing piece that will fix his broken life. He hasn’t learned that being a hero doesn’t always mean winning, but sacrificing your own hopes and dreams so that others can keep living theirs. Like any young adult he has no perspective for just how much more he can lose, even when he’s explicitly told as much. When the telegraphed coup de grâce is finally delivered in the third act, he doesn’t take it well. He clearly hasn’t learned all he can from his past experiences. He hasn’t got the world as figured out as he thought, and even the success of his quest leads to his expulsion from Fillory. This novel works as sort of an inciting incident into actual adulthood.
In the The Magician’s Land, Quentin has been getting by on Earth for six months, and what a world of difference this short time has made. Even in the opening pages the scope of his perspective feels different than it did in The Magician King. The pain of his exile from Fillory has dulled somewhat and he seems to be moving on with his life. He doesn’t like his situation, but he’s accepted it. He has gotten over the notion that he is the hero of the story and that everything will work out in the end. He’s much more a realist. He’s finally begun to understand that purpose isn’t something we find. Purpose is something we forge. He’s made mistakes and he wants to fix them. Not to assuage his own guilt or for the gratitude he may earn by doing so, but because he knows he should. Without even realizing it, he finally becomes the hero, but more importantly the adult, he fancy himself at earlier points in the series.
Even though the ending of the novel is pretty open ended, I found myself very satisfied with the fates of the characters, and I can’t wait to see what Grossman writes next. Part of me hopes for another installment in The Magicians world, but I’d be okay with it if he decided to lay Quentin Coldwater and his friends to rest.