Friday, January 9, 2015

The Magician's Land - Lev Grossman

The Magician's Land, the last volume of a series we can now say forms The Magicians trilogy, does several admirable things. It brings the series to a satisfying close, not always possible in a loose serial narrative, and addresses the primary question left dangling at the end of the first book: what is magic for? And it does so with a brisk, well-written narrative that avoids the bloat and long-windedness that the genre has become prone to.

The Magician's Land has some faults too. These are minor faults, to be sure, but they make the reading experience an uneven one. The first is an over-large cast of focal characters, and a structure that flips between characters at will, which forces Quentin, the protagonist of the trilogy, towards the background at odd moments, even though the story of his growing maturity and quest for restitution is the focus of the novel. Plum, a young magician snatched by misadventure from the magical college of Brakebills, holds significant portions of the narrative, but there's no real reason for her to do so, except to act as a foil for Quentin. There's also a tendency for characters to speak with the mock-ironic tone of college students even in moments of genuine tenderness or emotion, which is rather at odds with the growing maturity of the central characters, he signature development of this final volume. Nevertheless, Grossman has a magician's gift for combining action, contemporary references, and moments of true fantasy and wonder, and his invented world of Fillory has gathered true weight and strangeness (and a touch of sadness) as the series continues.

These, however, are small matters. Although Grossman is at pains to point out that the grand fantasy quest (even the quest for self-knowledge) is more often than not incomplete or ambivalent, his characters both destroy and remake a world. And in this we finally touch on the answer to the challenge of the first novel. Magic is not neat, predictable, merely technical, or even necessarily useful. But it is creative, and in creation and dislocation the magician, like the novelist, brings new possibilities into the mundane world.

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