Toward the end of “The Magician’s Land,” the final volume of Lev Grossman’s wonderful trilogy for grown-ups, Julia and Quentin, both 30-ish, visit a magic garden. The garden is in Fillory, the Narnia-like world that appeared in a series of books that they loved as children and that, thrillingly, turned out actually to exist.
“This is how you felt when you were 8 years old, and you opened one of the Fillory books for the first time, and you felt awe and joy and hope and longing all at once,” Julia explains.
Out here in the real world, the yearning of some readers to experience that same heady feeling is the subject of a spicy literary debate. The issue, roughly, is whether it is possible to be a serious citizen and still admire purportedly nonserious books: young adult novels, fantasy, genre fiction, books with compulsively interesting plots.
“The Magicians,” the first book in Grossman’s series, opens when Quentin Coldwater discovers a world of magic in and around our own, and learns he has a great talent as a magician. An oversmart high school senior, Quentin shows up for his Princeton interview only to find the interviewer has dropped dead. One of the paramedics does not appear to be a real paramedic. An envelope with Quentin’s name on it seems to contain a lost book from the Fillory series. And then Quentin is sucked into a hidden portal leading to Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy.
In one of many terrific scenes in a series full of them, Quentin takes an entrance exam requiring him to invent a new language, translate a passage from “The Tempest” into it, explain its grammar and orthography, describe “the made-up geography and culture and society of the made-up country where his made-up language was so fluently spoken” and then translate the passage back into English using the rules he has just made up. The reading-comprehension question vanishes even as he reads it, and all around him, students are vanishing, too, whisked off the premises for failing, mid-test.
The first book takes us through Quentin’s years at Brakebills, where the students dabble in esoteric and dangerous magic. After they graduate, the action for the rest of the series switches back and forth among Brakebills; the world outside, which carries some heavy magic of its own; and the world of Fillory, which they find to be far darker than they thought.
If you loved “The Chronicles of Narnia” as a child, you will be pleased by how Grossman has made the real Fillory diverge from the fictional one, revealing it to be nuanced, morally complex and nasty in a way that, to be frank, might have benefited Narnia.
“The Magician’s Land” finds Quentin out of his 20s and at loose ends, having been banished from Fillory at the end of the second book, “The Magician King.” He takes a dubious job with some unsavory characters in New Jersey, mourns the loss of his girlfriend, who is something more horrible than dead; and sets about casting a spell alluded to in the book’s title.
Grossman is usually a subtle, sophisticated writer, though he seems to have altered his tone in parts of “The Magician’s Land,” using too much narration with too much broish language. But this is a quibble. If the Narnia books were like catnip for a certain kind of kid, these books are like crack for a certain kind of adult. By the end, you feel that breathless, stay-up-all-night, thrumming excitement that you, too, experienced as a child, and that you felt all over again when you first opened up “The Magicians” and fell headlong into Grossman’s world.
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