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Review: The Magician’s Land

Yay, I finished another trilogy! I’ve recently finished reading Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land, the third book in his Magicians trilogy. I’ve been looking forward to delving into so many series this year, and I’ve been in the middle of several at once, so not only does it feel pretty darn rewarding to cross one off the list, but I’m already getting excited about which series I’m going to be starting next. Before I get ahead of myself though, let’s talk about The Magician’s Land. (P. S. If you haven’t read the first two books yet, you’ll probably want to check those out before you read any further. You can follow these links for my reviews of books one and two, The Magiciansand The Magician King.)

themagician'slandAbout the book: Quentin had everything, or almost everything, but now he explores what he’s got left after losing everything at the end of book two. Surprisingly, it’s something he lost even longer ago that’s been stuck on his mind–his girlfriend, Alice. With time on his hands and his access to Fillory blocked, Quentin can finally dedicate himself to finding Alice and putting things back to rights. Except he has no idea if it’s even possible to return a niffin to humanity, and no idea what might remain of Alice after seven years in niffin form if he can manage the impossible. He needs research. He needs resources. Maybe he even needs some help. On his search for those, his goals intersect with his friends’ goals, who are on yet another quest to save Fillory. Only this time, maybe it can’t be saved. Quentin and High King Elliot are both digging back into the Chatwins’ past for answers; the Physical Kids’ paths are not done crossing yet. None of them, however, have ever been so uncertain about where they’ll all end up.

“Doing magic was like finally finding the words you’d been groping for your whole life. You’d always known what you wanted to say, it was on the tip of your tongue, you almost had it, you knew it a moment ago but somehow forgot it–and then there it was. Casting the spell was like finally finding the words: there, that’s what I meant, that’s what I’ve been trying to say all along.”

One thing I particularly love about this book is the way it plays with words. All of the books in this series do that, but in this one especially I noted lots of cool words and phrases that seem at once obvious and unexpected. For example, “a dot in the shark” leaves just the same impression as its more common idiom counterpart–a shot in the dark. Also, the religious folk who believe in the ram gods Ember and Umber above all other possible gods in the multiverse call themselves the “Ramsians.” And the references–don’t even get me started on the great references to other magical worlds: Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Lorax… the list goes on. This book is a mishmash of everything fantastical and weird, and it’s a perfect combination. Lev Grossman has found the magic in novel writing, to say exactly what he meant all along.

It’s also commendable that Grossman manages to endow the same level of magical intrigue onto the mundane world; the magicians operating there see things that we don’t believe are part of the real world, and yet can’t quite refute–like something large and dagnerous lurking at the bottom of the ocean. Like dragons that hibernate in riverbeds. Who can say, really? Who can guarantee that non of the oddities in the weather or politics of our world are not side effects of magicians letting their craft get a little out of hand? It’s a whole world of possibilities out there, and especially in these pages.

But there are also times when this book goes darker than any of the books before it. Quentin’s happiness has always been tentative at best, and easily thwarted, but with so much changing–not only for him, but for everyone–there are some gruesome elements. Alice, for one, has spent seven years as a magical monster; there’s a lot of confused and difficult-to-access anger wrapped up in her character alone, and that doesn’t count Quentin’s despairing over whether or not he can save her and what he’ll find if he does. Nearing/entering their thirties now, the whole group has finally grown up and chosen their paths, and they’re finding that their futures won’t all be as connected as their pasts have been. Especially after the hard ending of book two, there’s a distinct vein of sadness and letting go that runs through this book, for all of the characters involved.

“Hate isn’t like love, it doesn’t end. It goes on forever. You can never get to the bottom of it. And it’s so pure, so unconditional! Do you know what I see when I look at you? I see dull, stupid ugly creatures full of emotional garbage. Your feelings are corrupt and contaminated, and half the time you don’t even know what you’re feeling. You’re too stupid and too numb. You love and you hate and you grieve and you don’t even feel it.”

The best part of all, of course, are the characters. These are characters that feel real–the best kind. They are not “good” or “evil.” They are all annoying sometimes, they make mistakes, they are wrong, they overstep their bounds, and sometimes they’re right and they save the world. No matter where they stand, though, they are always readable. Even when the reader might have reason to hate them, it’s impossible to resist finding out what will they will do next. Their personalities remain consistent throughout the trilogy, and yet each of the main characters is transformed from the start of the first novel to the end of this last one. It was a journey I felt that I learned from, as well, though there is so very little in these books that coincides with my real life.

“It was funny how just when you thought you knew yourself through and through, you stumbled on a new kind of strength, a fresh reserve of power inside you that you never knew you had, and all at once you found yourself burning a little brighter and hotter than you ever had before.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. While I think the second book in this series will end up on my favorite books of the year list, this third one reminded me more of volume one, with a lot of potential and a lot of great elements but just enough lack of cohesion in the tension to make it feel like it’s missing something. I really loved this whole trilogy. I can’t wait to watch the rest of the TV show as the episodes are aired. I’ll miss these wacky, messed-up magicians. But I don’t see myself rereading the series, not for a good long time, at least. Not until the plot has more or less faded from memory, because not knowing where it’s going next is the exciting part of these books. I would probably read something new of Lev Grossman’s, though, if he publishes another book. I know he also has The Codex out, but that doesn’t sound quite like what I’m interested in, so I’ll wait and see.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you love the magical world of Fillory (and just the magical aspects of the real world as presented in the Magicians trilogy) you should check out the other magical worlds referenced within the narration. I have not yet read Tolkien myself, but I intend to start soon. I can recommend the Harry Potter series with full confidence, though, first book: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. If you like books like the Magicians trilogy and you haven’t yet read Harry Potter or Tolkien, I mean what are you (we, in the case of the Lord of the Rings) waiting for?
  2. I can also recommend, if you enjoy fantasy worlds full of magic and morally gray characters, A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. This series is full of political intrigue on top of the fantasy elements, and generally the characters in Martin’s books take things a lot more seriously than the lackidasical Physical Kids, but it’s a similar sort of fun ride through magical lands.

What’s next: I’m currently reading the YA (somewhat) historical fiction novel My Lady Jane, by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows. I wanted to be reading ACOWAR now, but my copy has not quite arrived yet. I’m hoping I’ll be able to get to that one soon, and in the meantime I’m looking for some good laughs in this book about a girl who was queen for nine days in a land where some of the people transform into animals.

What are you reading in this glorious shift of seasons?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: The Magician King

Although I’ve been finding more of them in the last year, it’s still pretty rare for me to be able to say I liked a sequel better than the first book in its series. In this case, I’m talking about the second book in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy (you can check out my review of the first book here, in case you missed it), which I started last month and was so very eager to continue. Although the first ten pages or so had me worried, the rest of book 2, The Magician King, met absolutely every expectation.

FullSizeRender (11)About the book: Being a king of Fillory is everything it was supposed to be, but that still isn’t enough for Quentin. He and Julia, Eliot, and Janet have everything they could’ve asked for as Fillory’s kings and queens–everything but adventure. The other three might be content enough with the adventure of being royalty in a magical land, but Quentin longs for a quest. Still, it’s been a long time since he’s had a clear purpose for action, so when a quest presents itself, he walks away with the others. The quest, however, will not walk away from them. So when Quentin finds an excuse to make a sea voyage to Outer Island, the far reaches of Fillory, he takes it. Then he listens to a story about seven golden keys, and instead of returning to his castle he sets out to find them. Little does he know then that he will never make it back to Whitespire Castle at all.

“There was more to life than being fat and safe and warm in a clockwork luxury resort. Or maybe there wasn’t more, but he was going to find out. And how did you find out? You had an adventure. That’s how. You picked up a golden key.”

The beginning vs. the end: the book starts in a very different place from where it leaves off, and both reminded me of points in other literary works. The first ten pages or so reminded me of that time in the Chronicles of Narnia when Henry, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy have been royalty so long that when they stumble back upon the lamp post that marks the entrance back to Earth they hardly remember that part of their lives at all, or even where they came from. Fillory is different than Narnia, though. Fillory’s kings and queens see their chance to be more than fat and safe and warm, but unlike the Narnian royalty these magicians don’t take the chance. Of course, the chance ends up taking them, but at first there’s the disappointment of reading about characters who are too content to take chances. It’s the only boring part of the book.

“If you’re too good too much of the time, people start to forget about you. You’re not a problem, so people can strike you off their list of things to worry about.”

But the end! The end is huge and tragic and exciting. The hero doesn’t win the reward, the hero pays the price. Of course Quentin set out to be the hero, and thus pays the biggest price. It reminded me strongly of the end of Pierce Brown’s Golden Son, also the second book in a trilogy. The plots of these two works are vastly different, but the emotional wreckage matches up nicely. Between the crazy plot twists and the devastation of the main character losing everything that’s most important at that point, it would’ve been hard to carry on at all if not for the surety that the extreme lows are just a setup for the epic finale coming up next. Quentin is being pushed into greatness.

“You didn’t get the quest you wanted, you got the one you could do. That was the hard part, accepting that you didn’t get to choose which way you went. Except of course he had chosen.”

On another note, the layout has improved since book 1. We have some great back-and-forth in this one between Quentin’s present and Julia’s past, which keeps the book from stalling. In the first book there were times when the reader needed to see that not much was going on, and to understand the atmosphere at those times even when the plot went dull. It was part of the world-building, when Quentin was studying at school, and part of the character-building as relationships were being established and tested at Brakebills and beyond. In this sequel, the main characters and the world are set; there are new people and new elements, but the main course is already served. All that’s left is to taste it.

“Careful what you hunt, lest you catch it.”

The best part of this book: seeing an old “friend” from The Magicians reappearing unexpectedly. I won’t say who, but I will say that this reappearance makes me even more hopeful that another beloved character will find a way to return yet before the end of the series. I mean, this is a magical world where space and time and life and death have been proven capable of manipulation. Anything should be possible, right? There’s one more chance for this person to come back, so I will definitely be picking up the final book in this trilogy early next month. I have a hunch. I also have a hunch about the Watcherwoman. This is a series that’s impossible to read without making predictions about how everything will connect. Luckily, it’s also one of those series that doesn’t feel like the world is shrinking as connections are being made.

“The higher you get the more you realize how much bigger than you everything is.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely love this series. I love all of its references to other fantasy worlds and I love that it feels like Narnia for grownups and I love the characters with all their flaws. Even with a whole book still left to read I know I’m going to miss this story when it’s over. I’m interested to see how the rest of the TV series will pan out. At this point, I’d advise reading the entire trilogy before starting to watch the show because it does mix in elements from beyond the first book even in the beginning of the first season. Which also means that I’m ready for a rewatch to pick up details I missed in season 1 the first time around. I just can’t wait to see where this trilogy is going next and I hope Lev Grossman is busy writing something new that’s long and amazing right this very minute.

Further recommendations:

  1. Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter is a science fiction thriller with such high level physics that it feels almost as magical as the Magicians trilogy (though just as accessible). The multiverse comes into play in this one as well, although the door-filled corridor looks much different than the Neitherlands (the magical fountain land between worlds in Grossman’s trilogy). If you like highly intelligent characters and fast plot twists, check this one out.
  2. If it’s the sword fights and the politics and the crossing-between-worlds that interest you in the Magicians trilogy, try Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, the first volume in a historical fiction saga that involves time travel and various supernatural elements mixed in with actual wars from the mid 1700s.

Coming up Next: Even though I just finished reading The Magician King last night, I’ve already started my next April read, Julie Buntin’s adult lit fic novel Marlena. This was my BOTM club pick from March (which I’m clearly starting a little late), and I’m already completely invested in these tragic characters and their risky choices.

Have you read any of those great books lately that are both character-driven and have fantastic plots? I’ll always pick good characters over plots, but both combined are… magical. That’s how the Magicians trilogy is going. What have you read that makes you feel like all the elements are perfectly balanced?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: You can now check out my full review on the next book in this series, The Magician’s Land!

Review: The Magicians

Lev Grossman’s recently completed fantasy trilogy caught my attention earlier this year, and even though I’m in the middle of a couple other series right now I had to check this one out. And let me just say: WHOA.

FullSizeRender (1)About the book: Quentin is just an ordinary guy–an ordinary genius guy with genius friends interviewing for Ivy League schools and preparing for prestigious futures. But he’s bored and unhappy and can’t figure out why–until he steps through a garden and finds himself at Brakebills, secret school for Magicians, where he’s told that he’s always been a magician and he’s unhappy because he doesn’t belong in the mundane world he’s been living in. Brakebills is a five-year college program that trains America’s Magicians from upstate New York. That’s not even the weird part, though. The magical part of this book comes in the fact that Quentin’s favorite fantasy series from childhood (and beyond) is not as fictional as everyone had thought. It’s common knowledge that the Chatwin children really lived next door to the author who wrote about them, but who would ever believe that their fantastical journeys to magical Fillory were anything but the author’s fictional creations? The possibility that Fillory is a real place, though, is only one of Quentin’s many concerns. He makes plenty of friends (the Physical Kids) and enemies (students and otherwise) at Brakebills, must escape “the Beast,” a powerful and deadly creature from another realm who shows up unexpectedly in one of Quentin’s classes, and on top of all that there’s the mystery of the missing fourth years to solve and the mandatory welters tournaments to contend with. Brakebills turns out to be a challenge of survival as much as a formal education.

“Quentin knew he wasn’t happy. Why not? He had painstakingly assembled all the ingredients of happiness. He had performed all the necessary rituals, spoken the words, lit the candles, made the sacrifices. But happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come. He couldn’t think what else to do.”

The Magicians is a mishmash of the Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, and… another element that I have no comparison for in my reading life. Something like the Heroes TV show. And yet, despite all these similarities, The Magicians is also firmly its own entity.

“But somewhere in the heat of magic that boundary between word and thing ruptures. It cracks, and the one flows back into the other, and the two melt together and fuse. Language gets tangled up with the world it describes.”

The characters are compelling and completely readable, even when you don’t like them or their choices. They’re not morally black and white, which makes them unpredictable and exciting. These are people you could meet on the street and have a conversation with, which is what makes the magical parts of this story feel plausible.

“Most people are blind to magic. They move through a blank and empty world. They’re bored with their lives, and there’s nothing they can do about it. They’re eaten alive by longing, and they’re dead before they die.”

There are two types of books (depending on how you categorize them): the kind with a single point of tension in the plot that’s introduced early and grows consistently throughout, leaving the reader with the same major question until the end of the book; there’s also the kind with myriad plot points that are solved one at a time, building off of each other and changing the story so greatly that the reader’s questions are always changing and there’s no way of knowing which answers to expect at the end of the book. Do you know what I mean? (Example: my last review featured Garber’s Caraval, which had a single point of tension that grew: where was Scarlett’s sister?) The Magicians fits into the second category. Although all of the little points accumulate into one big climax toward the end, the book is divided into “books” and further into chapters, each with its own questions and answers that are mostly provided one at a time until the end.

This is the most realistic format, in my opinion, and it also translates well into TV shows because the story line is easier to separate into episodes when it has all these little arcs. It has to be done carefully, though, because without a constant line of inquiry to carry the reader through the entire book, you run the risk of becoming bored while you’re waiting for all these little plot points to mean something. I did hit that sort of snag somewhere in the middle of this book, but I pushed through and the story picked up again before long.

But back to the TV show talk. I did watch the entire first season of The Magicians already, and I’m glad there was only one season on Netflix so far because if there had been more I would not have hesitated to keep going even though I haven’t read more than the first book yet. I suspect that I learned a few things that come up in later parts of the trilogy from the first season of the TV show, but really the two formats of this story are so disparate that I didn’t mind. I wouldn’t say that the story line in the show is entirely changed, but there are enough differences that even having read the book I could never be sure exactly where the show was going. That said, I was glad to already know who the characters were and what the main plot points should be before watching the show because it’s fast-paced and packed with so much magic and action and mystery that the book felt like a guide to the TV show. I think I loved the show even more than the book, but I’m glad I read the book before watching and I am also (begrudgingly) glad that I’ll have time to finish reading the series before the next season is available on Netflix. A brief warning for anyone who wants to check out the show: the first season ends in a cliffhanger that’s answered in the book, but I think the TV show will have to solve the cliffhanger in a slightly different way.

Whether you’re more interested in the book or the TV show, the characters in both–and their utterly odd lives–are absolutely captivating and will stay in your head for a long time afterward. Their world is so different, and yet…so relatable. The writing is beautiful and the points it makes are impossible to ignore. Magic is so real here, and at the same time, it feels like a metaphor I haven’t fully deciphered yet.

“In a way fighting like this was just like using magic. You said the words, and they altered the universe. By merely speaking you could create damage and pain, cause tears to fall, drive people away, make yourself feel better, make your life worse.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting from this book, but nothing I could have expected would have landed anywhere close to what I found. I immediately felt like I needed to take a breather when I finished this first book, but I’ve already got the second book on hold at my library and I started watching the corresponding TV show within hours of putting the book down. There was SO MUCH packed into this book and I have absolutely no idea where it will go next, but I’m excited to find out!

Further recommendations:

  1. If you are intrigued by Fillory, you should check out C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, first book (in chronological order) The Magician’s Nephew. There are so, so many similarities between Fillory and Narnia, and a close comparison would be incredibly interesting, in my opinion.
  2. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising is the first book in a trilogy with a similar format of small plot points that all add up to something giant rather than one huge tension arc that remains consistent through the book. The plot twists in this one are crazy, and while there’s not magic, per se, this series is set on futuristic Mars, so there’s plenty of otherworldly detail. Much like The Magicians, you never can tell who will die.
  3. The Secret History by Donna Tart is the way to go if your favorite part of The Magicians is the characters’ time at school, where the odd relationships and their consequences turn out to be just as important as the curriculum. This one, much like the Physical Kids’ group, features a small, elite group of students who spend most of their time together and thus grow together into one epic disaster.

Coming up next: I just dashed through All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven in its entirety. I was expecting more romance than tragedy from this contemporary YA, but through the highs and lows the book is compulsively readable and I couldn’t put it down. I finished reading about Violet and Finch’s excursions through Indiana and brushes with death in two sittings and I’ll have all of my thoughts on that ready to share with you tomorrow.

Do you ever read two very opposite books back to back and wonder how you acquired your literary tastes?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: you can now read my full review of the next book in this series, The Magician King!