Summary: Quentin Coldwater has been cast out of Fillory, the secret magical land of his childhood dreams. With nothing left to lose, he returns to where his story began, the Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic, but he can’t hide from his past, and it’s not long before it comes looking for him.
Page Count: 402 Publication Date: 2014
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Note: This review is about The Magician’s Land, but includes thoughts on the full trilogy.
I started out by watching the tv show, which, while it diverges quite a bit from the books, nonetheless captures the motivations and personalities of the characters quite well. There are key differences (notably with Penny and Kady’s stories) but they make sense as necessary additions for adapting the book series to a format appropriate for tv. Since I watched the show first I can’t guarantee to fans of the books that they would enjoy it, but it’s worth watching if only to see how certain ideas are played with and explored more thoroughly.
Now for the books. The whole trilogy easily made it onto my all time favorites list, which is strange because I dislike many of the characters. Eliot and Margot/Janet are particularly flat until the third book, and Kady/Asmodeus is barely in the books at all. Penny is a typical lone-wolf 80s inspired punk and has a very small, if significant, role. But beyond the tropey characterizations, the books themselves are brilliant.
All at once existential and playful, they throw shade at the millennial lifestyle and follow the relatable experience that most young people have after they leave school and find adulthood to be disappointing. I love Quentin and Julia, though Julia is unfortunately absent for much of the books. When she is there, she is perfect. Half gothic heroine and half Lisbeth Salander, she stands apart as not quite human–and is a wonderful departure from the typical intellectual female protagonist. She’s rude, doesn’t care what people think of her, forgets to bathe and is not averse to getting her hands dirty in favor of the higher good. I would argue that the tv series captures her arc better than any of the others. Beginning as a desperate, horribly depressed occult junkie and rising to the status of quarter-goddess and guardian of Fillory, I loved every minute of her journey. She reads as authentic and relatable in a very real way. There are of course the thinly veiled references to Chronicles of Narnia, and those are great. They are definitely irreverent and an intentional subversion and satire of the books, but if you are not easily offended by a deconstruction of Christianity, you’ll enjoy the specific way the author lovingly makes fun of the books. Above all, my favorite part of the trilogy–represented most clearly in the second and third books but also the first–is the exploration of different magical systems, beliefs, and theories.
Starting with the standard Harry Potter style “magic is a craft unrelated to spirituality”, the series touches on real-world occultism and eventually tackles the question of what exactly magic is and what it is (and should be) used for. It’s possible to accept the books at face value as fun, comically dark fantasy novels, but if you have any knowledge of religion, cosmology, and the occult, you’ll see the masterful way Grossman breaks down each of those complex approaches to magic and shows how they each intersect.
This series is for adult fans of Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, theological and non-theological occultism, paganism, fairy tales, and comparative literature. It is most certainly adult and includes difficult topics like suicidal depression, rape, and substance abuse in a blunt, unapologetic light, so if you have difficulty with those topics, it’s not for you, and you should consider reading similar books like Starless Sea or The Hazel Wood instead. I highly recommend listening to the audiobook because narrator Mark Bramhall really brings the story and characters to life in a moving and comedic way. View all my reviews