Books exert a sort of magic when you are immersed in them. They are machines for supernatural travel, transporting you to times and places long gone (or places that don’t exist at all). Reading is telepathic; you know someone else from the inside. The fate of a fictional character matters, sometimes more than real events. The power of the illusion is immense and intense. That’s why we have fan fiction, cosplay and a million websites.
At the start of the book, Quentin is almost 30 and has been ejected from Fillory, the Narnia-like land that was the subject of a series of books he obsessed over as a kid. The book geek’s dream — that you can truly enter the fantasy world where everything will be better, including yourself — has turned sour.
He winds up working as a sort of magical mercenary, part of a group assembled to steal an object, just like you’ve seen in a million movies. That quest starts — where else? — in a bookstore, just a strip mall chain outlet, but Quentin “felt at home in bookstores, and he hadn’t had that feeling much lately.”
Woven throughout are knowing references to books and libraries as objects and places with special power. The books at the magical academy Brakebills fly free from their shelves and even reproduce. The Neitherlands, the hub of the multiverse for traveling between realms, is filled with libraries.
Quentin is conscious of his own narrative: After graduating from Brakebills, “he’d thought life was going to be like a novel, starring him on his own personal hero’s journey, and the world would provide him with an endless series of evils to triumph over and life lessons to learn.”
And it does — but not in the fantastic Fillorian ways he’d envisioned. Life is real and hard and messy, even for magicians who travel to storybook realms.
Quentin wrestles with the questions of adulthood that go well beyond career choices. He has to define who he is, outside of Brakebills, outside of his family and friends, outside of the magical land where he really was a king.
The first book in the trilogy, The Magicians, was carelessly described as Harry Potter with sex and drugs. The second volume, The Magician King, was a darker take on The Chronicles of Narnia. But in all of three books, especially the latest, Grossman is doing far more than riffing on popular works of fantasy for adolescents. He’s telling a specific story, and you genuinely care about Quentin, especially if you have bookish nerd tendencies.
Grossman is also making the case that stories like this are much more than escapism, the label that gets attached to so much genre fiction. The writers of such works, if they pull off their illusions, are creating real worlds, even when those worlds have talking animals and flying carpets. For readers, those worlds are as real as Henry VIII’s court as conjured by Hilary Mantel or the New Jersey neighborhoods of Junot Diaz.
A huge part of the pleasure of this trilogy in general and this volume in particular is that, even as we consume the story just to find out what happens to Quentin, we know that we are collaborating in our own versions of its creation, its animation. The reader gets to be a magician, too.
Nancy Klingener is a writer and independent radio producer in Key West.