Late in The Magician's Land, Lev Grossman's terrific final book in his Magicians trilogy, series protagonist Quentin Coldwater reflects on what it could possibly be that makes him and others like him such good magicians. The answer, ultimately, is not intelligence or physical dexterity or even some inborn magical ability, though all of those things help. The answer, he concludes, is something to do with unchecked emotion, with his and others' abilities to tap into something primal and deep in the human experience.
The problem, of course, is that doing this can cause people to shut down, to disconnect from their lives and those they care about. For the Magicians trilogy, among other things, is a story about mental illness.
From the first book, which took the petulant, disaffected Quentin Coldwater from his normal adolescence to a magical education at the school Brakebills, on through the second and third, which have depicted his 20s as shot through with despair and anomie, the series has always forced readers to see the world through the perspective of someone who was seriously depressed. What's more, the people around him were similarly dealing with rage or shame or guilt, all intensely heightened by the quick burn of their magical abilities. It was a fantasy trilogy, sure, but it was also a story about coming of age after the characters were supposed to have come of age.
This continues in the concluding book, which comes out on Tuesday. It attempts to say something about what it is to live through trauma, what it is to survive the horrors of the world and the horrors of your own head. There are moments in Magician's Land that bump the reader slightly, as Grossman occasionally tries too hard to make the subtext into text, or rushes through emotional reactions to get to his climax. These books have always been episodic, only tipping their hands at the very end (in often thrilling ways), but there are places early in Magician's Land when it seems as if Grossman can never pull everything together.
And then he does. And it's cathartic and moving and strangely peaceful.
Maturity and catharsis
Fans of the series will find Magician's Land's final quarter or so — when Grossman brings several plot points to effective, cathartic ends — riveting and moving. But even those who haven't liked the series (often because they haven't enjoyed viewing the world through the perspective of Quentin, who began the series as a whiny boy unaware of his own privilege) will hopefully be impressed by what Grossman has managed here. See, the story of the Magicians trilogy is that of Quentin moving from that whiny boy into a man who is capable of understanding that the world wasn't built solely to cater to him. What's remarkable is how completely the series' structure reflects this.
The Magicians, the first book in the series, is only told from Quentin's perspective. In the second, The Magician King, Grossman steps outside of Quentin's point of view for a handful of chapters told from the perspective of Julia, a childhood friend of Quentin's who was rejected from Brakebills but found her own way to magic. The Julia chapters too easily turned to outright horror for some readers, but they were a necessary corrective to Quentin's angst. Julia, Grossman seemed to be saying, was someone whose life had truly been difficult.
What's interesting is that in this process, Grossman never judges Quentin for feeling as he does. His emotional life may be shallow in places (particularly early in the series), but he always has the right to be depressed or rage-filled. It's just that someone like Julia has endured so much that she becomes a much-needed foil for anyone who feared the books were just going to be a bunch of white guy sniveling. Julia was a single-handed "check your privilege!" banner for the whole series, and she tipped off where Grossman was ultimately going.
See, in The Magician's Land, Grossman dips into many, many points of view. If a character was an important one in the series, it's almost guaranteed that there will be a section of the book dedicated to seeing events through their eyes. Some of this is very much a function of how the second book left the characters scattered across multiple worlds. For Grossman to check in on what's happening in the magical land of Fillory, he necessarily has to leave Quentin behind for large sections of time.
But a lot of it is just a function of the main character growing up. The Magicians trilogy never comes out and says it, but it seems to mark adulthood less as an age one reaches and more as a progression of empathy. One day, you can only see things from your perspective. The next, you realize there are other people out there who have feelings and issues, too. And then, finally, you realize that's true of everybody. True maturity isn't measured in battles won or sacrifices made; it's measured in people understood.
Further up and further in
The Magicians books are indebted to other works of fantasy, particularly J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, T.H. White's The Once and Future King, and C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. In that sense, the most thrilling thing about Magician's Land might be just how widely Grossman calls upon his own prodigious imagination. Yes, the most important touchstone here is the final two Narnia books, which depicted the birth and death, respectively, of the magical land. But the apocalypse Grossman invents is his own, and it has a chaos and unruliness to it that feels as immediate and horrifying as the actual end of a world would surely be.
It's hard to reveal much of the plot without greatly spoiling what happens. Suffice to say that Grossman understands the logic of satisfying endings. Rules long thought unbreakable are broken. Characters who left the page long ago return, even if only for cameo appearances. Scores are settled, and old locations revisited. There's a quest and a battle and a relationship put to the test. And, above all else, there's catharsis.
The thing that makes the Magicians books one of the signature literary achievements of the last decade is the way that they uneasily bump psychological realism up against the escapism of great fantasy. Grossman's books read like page-turners. It's easy to get lost in them and have an entire evening disappear out from under you. But just when you're secure in the flow of the story, certain that you know where it's going, Grossman drops in a reminder of how flawed and human these characters are, how they hurt and bleed, and cause each other to hurt and bleed. The escapism leaks away, replaced by raw pain. It's a tricky juggling act. That the author has managed it for three books is remarkable.
But it also means that the books, necessarily, must come to an end, and The Magician's Land manages this as well as could be hoped for. Any flaws present in the whole fall away in the final chapters, when they're revealed to be intentional ripples in the overall tapestry. The final section of the book is as graceful and evocative as anything Grossman has written in the series, as beautiful and wrenching as the end of the first two books was deeply sad.
Most of all, though, the book finds its way through the emotional turmoil to a kind of inner peace. The ultimate goal of the Magicians trilogy isn't to win a crown or visit another land. It's not even to become a great magician. What is important to these characters is what's important to all of us. To hurt and be healed. To see others as they truly are and accept them for it. To love and be loved. There is no greater purpose in the universe than these things, nor any greater magic.
Lev Grossman was book critic and reporter for Time magazine and the author of two novels when The Magicians, his first fantasy novel, was published in 2009. That book, the story of a 17-year-old boy's coming of age and magical education, became a surprise bestseller and garnered warm critical reviews. He followed that up with 2011's The Magician King, which repeated the trick and deepened the story of the first book's characters, now living as rulers in a magical land.
Now, the final chapter of his trilogy, The Magician's Land, will publish on Tuesday, while the TV network SyFy has commissioned a pilot for a series based on the trilogy, which will film later this year. Grossman talked with Vox about the themes of his latest, what he's learned about writing over the course of writing the trilogy, and what Twilight taught him about ending a book series.
Todd VanDerWerff: I read in another interview that the shape of this book was in your head as you were writing the second one. What did you know, and what didn't you know as you set out to write The Magician's Land?
Lev Grossman: I didn't know that much, honestly. I knew that I wasn't done with Brakebills. We had to find a way to get back there. I had this idea about the land itself. If Quentin — having become who he's supposed to be — learned to understand his place with other people, he was ready to get to work, to figure out what his life's work is supposed to be, figure out what for him magic is for. And as it turns out, it's this strange, wonderful act of creation.
Todd VanDerWerff: Quentin starts the series at age 17 and ends up at 30. You make a point of that number 30 often. What about that age was significant to you?
Lev Grossman: My own 20s were a pretty spectacular wipeout. They were a series of professional and personal failures that felt like it was never going to end. I felt very conscious that the fantasy novels that I loved — for example, Narnia and Harry Potter, but lots and lots of them — they tend to leave that period out.
You can think of it as this whole generation raised on Harry Potter, and then you get to the end of Deathly Hallows, and there's a big blank spot. He graduates high school, and then you see him again in the epilogue and he's well-established. How do you get from the one to the other? I felt as though that was something that I had a lot of trouble grappling with, myself personally. I felt like I wanted to tell a story about that, but tell it through the lens of fantasy.
Todd VanDerWerff What role do you think privilege plays in these books or in your mind as you are writing them?
Lev Grossman: I'm very interested in one of the conventions of fantasy novels, which is the specialness of the hero, or the heroes. The hero is special. He's chosen. He's singled out by destiny to do great things. I wanted to write a fantasy novel, but to think about people who aren't chosen. What it's like to be one of the many unchosen ones, not marked out for any particular path or greatness. What's that experience like?
I'm also conscious of books like the ones that I write where you're in the real world, but then there's a magical subset of it. There's this built in snobbery, which is that we care about the magic people. We don't care about the rest of them. I wanted to break that distinction down a little bit, too.
Todd VanDerWerff: There's a very rich vein of anger and mental illness, particularly rage issues. Why do you think so many of these characters are angry, and what about that speaks to you?
Lev Grossman: I guess for me, I wanted to write about people who had a problem with the world, who felt as though who they were and what they needed, there was a big gap between that and the reality that they were trying to cope with. For me, magic was a way of bridging that gap.
I always felt like I was dealing with all of these strong emotions, a lot of anger, and I struggled with depression as well, but they didn't matter. They didn't change the world around me. Nobody would walk you by or would even know that I felt like I was falling in on myself. Magic is a way of letting those feelings out, and I feel like people who did magic — if magic were real — would be the struggling ones, the angry ones, the depressed ones, because they felt so badly. They have these huge feelings inside them that couldn't get out.
Todd VanDerWerff: Especially in the last third of the book, you draw an explicit link between art and magic. That's certainly another field where people who have anger and depression have thrived. What do you see as the artistry of magic?
Lev Grossman: There is a link for me between magic and creation. It's one of the things that magic stands in for in the books. I guess it is this funny act of taking reality, and kind of reshaping it, bending it to your will, and turning it into something that more resembles what you've got in your head. Magicians do it in this super cool way because they have awesome powers. Lacking awesome powers, all I could do is take it and then reshape it in the form of art. I feel that's common. It's a good skeleton key when reading fantasy novels. If you want to know how the writer feels about their art, look at the way they feel about magic.
Todd VanDerWerff: You've talked often about the books that have influenced you. But the books also seem influenced by episodic television or serialized comics, in the nature of how the stories are set up and then reveal what they're about at the end. What have you drawn from serialized forms?
Lev Grossman: I don't watch very much TV. With a job, and writing, and kids, it's one of the things that takes a hit. The Sopranos was definitely an influence, though. That really disenchanted take on an established genre was something that made a huge impression on me.
And of course, in terms of comics, Watchmen was one of the formative reading experiences in my life. Watchmen and Miracleman were just transformative for me. I looked at the way works like that are critiquing a genre, or they're interrogating a genre and looking at its assumptions and where they hold up and when they don't. But they're also telling a great story in that genre. Watchmen destroys superhero stories. It just overturns everything that's sacred about them, but it's also the greatest superhero story ever told. I feel like that's just one of the cool things about art is that you can do both at the same time.
Todd VanDerWerff: Where do you find the line of being reverential toward your ancestors but also deconstructing what they were doing?
Lev Grossman: It's really complicated. I read an academic paper once about Magicians, which was making the case that [C.S.] Lewis is like my Dad and [J.K.] Rowling is like my Mom, and I'm having an Oedipal struggle with them. A take away from that is that I should never read academic papers about Magicians. But there's a lot of truth to it. That complicated feeling one has about one's parents. One loves them, but one is also super pissed off with them. And those two emotions kind of alchemize into this one, very complicated interchange I often thought about when I was writing The Magicians. I thought of myself saying to Lewis, "I love your books, so much but there's so much they leave out. There's so much that they didn't tell me that I was going to have to deal with." And I sort of very badly wanted to say that to Lewis in this loving but also aggrieved and disappointed spirit.
Todd VanDerWerff: You wrote about that in Time last year on the 50th anniversary of his death. There are things in Narnia that still trouble you. When did you first have the sense these stories weren't giving you everything you wanted?
Lev Grossman: Definitely when I first read them, when I was 8 or 9, they gave me everything I wanted. They just checked every box. I loved them so much. A lot of people talk or write about kind of falling out of love with those books because of the Christian themes. That never bothered me at all. It was never a big issue for me, possibly because I was raised without any religion. It's just not a sore spot for me.
But I think that when I was a teenager, I was really feeling the lack in my life of a kind of powerful mentor figure. I felt as though I was waiting for someone like Aslan, or Gandalf, or Dumbledore, to come along and get me back on track and help me figure out, if I was going to go on this incredibly long, arduous journey, where's the path, anyway? I didn't even know what direction to go.
I think I felt a looming sense that nobody was helping me the way that Aslan helped the Pevensies. And I became conscious also that Aslan doesn't help the Pevensies nearly as much as he could. He's more or less omnipotent, but he's always wandering around in the woods while Narnians are fighting and dying for whatever cause they're dealing with. Aslan, he sort of plays peek-a-boo with them. He's sort of like, "I'm here. I'm gone." I felt myself, as a teenager, getting angrier and angrier about that. I felt as though, if he could have helped, he should have. And why wouldn't he, unless he's a very cruel, neglectful god?
Todd VanDerWerff: There's so much in this book about being a son and being a father, both in Quentin's relationship with his biological father and then some of his father figures. There's one line in particular where Quentin says he thought maybe he hadn't been much of a son figure to his father figures. How do you feel those issues cropping up, and why are they so focused in this book in particular?
Lev Grossman: There's a glib answer, which is also true. I've been having a lot of kids lately. I had a daughter born in 2010 and a son in 2012, and especially I think having a son made me think a lot about being a father and what a father is supposed to do. My own father was dying over the course of while I was writing The Magician's Land. He died about a month ago. So you can imagine, son arrives, father leaving, it was very much on my mind.
I was conscious that I hadn't dealt with it, but adults in The Magicians books have always been kind of like Peanuts cartoons adults and just off stage and [imitates] wah, wah, wah. You can't tell what they're saying. I felt as if I were avoiding something. I felt that I was avoiding the fact that one of the reasons Quentin is the way he is, and has so much trouble becoming a functioning adult, was that his parenting wasn't very good, and he's really angry about it. And he's got to work it through and get past it, and really understand that now that he is an adult, no one's going to come help him, no one's going to come fix the bad things about his childhood. He just has to metabolize them and move on. He had a hard time doing that.
Todd VanDerWerff:Plum, the new character in this book, is sort of a peer of his, but he also is very much a father figure or an older brother figure to her. What do you think that she helped him learn about acceptance?
Lev Grossman: Yeah, it's a new kind of relationship around this idea that he could be a mentor, which is that other thing that makes him feel like more of a grown-up. I felt like for various logistical reasons, it was totally impossible to make him a dad, and I really didn't want to. But I wanted him to have that feeling of being responsible for somebody. And he feels a bit responsible for Plum.
But also doing that he becomes aware that Plum respects him but also gives him a lot of shit. Trying to do that, trying to be a kind of parent figure for somebody, you really become conscious of a lot of your own shortcomings. You have a real sense of power, but also a real sense of what you can't do.
Todd VanDerWerff: The first book is all from Quentin's point of view. The second one has two major points of view. This one has many point-of-view characters. How did that technique develop?
Lev Grossman: That's a question that I ask myself, and I'm not sure I know the answer. To me, the most marked thing about the progression of the trilogy is its refraction through these other characters who weren't initially built as point-of-view characters. Certainly, it's me growing as a writer, and being able to write from the point-of-view of people, who on the surface at least, are very different from me.
I think the turning point was writing Julia [in The Magician King]. Julia wasn't meant to be a big point-of-view character. She was meant to have a chapter where she told her story, because obviously there's lot of huge holes left in it after The Magicians. But when I started writing her, I really hit a vein. She just had so much to say, and she was so angry, I just wrote and wrote and wrote, and then she ended up filling up the other half of the book. So as it turned out, there were things I needed to say that Quentin couldn't say that had to be said from other points-of-view.
But it also, in a funny way, has to do with Quentin's growing up. One of the turning points of the trilogy, for me, is the first time Julia looks at Quentin, and we see him from the outside. I think Quentin, for the first time, is really getting a sense of how other people see him, and he himself is learning to see things, to empathize more and to see from other people's points of view. Weirdly enough, that ends up coming out structurally in the novel.
I feel like the way I'm talking about the book, it's like — I don't know — a kind of moody meditation on death, and life, and parenthood. It's actually supposed to be a sort of kick-ass fantasy novel, with that sort of stuff in there as well. It was very important to me that it be a lot of fun.
Todd VanDerWerff: How did you find that fun, particularly in the quest narratives?
Lev Grossman: It's tricky, because I love fantasy so much, but I also really like writing against the conventions of it. So if you want to tell a quest story, but you're very uncomfortable with some of the conventions of quest stories, how do you do that? How do you break it down but leave it intact at the same time?
It was very important to me that it scratches whatever itch you have when you pick up a fantasy novel, which it didn't for a while. I had throw out the first third of it and start again, which is something that's never happened to me before. But I made the mistake of watching the movie Ronin halfway through while I was writing it. That movie, everyone talks about the car chases, but just from a narrative point of view structurally, it's just like a master class. It's so beautifully put together and so utterly engrossing. I was writing this book and watching Ronin and thinking, "Why would I so much rather be watching Ronin than reading this book? Why is Ronin so much more fun than this book that I'm writing?" Then I went back and wrote a scene, which if you watch the movie you could tell it's very much evokes this early scene where they're kind of putting together his team and thinking about committing this robbery. It was so important to me that it has that kind of thriller backbone. The Bourne Identity — the movie not the book — was a major, major influence on me. I felt that whatever I was going to say I was going to have to say it in a way that was very taut, in a way that borrowed as much as possible from those thrillers.
Todd VanDerWerff: One thing I think you do in that regard is you play with our anticipation really well. We sort of know certain things will happen, but you stretch those out almost to the point where we don't expect them to happen. How did you build that anticipation?
Lev Grossman: It's the thing I enjoy most about novels. It's the thing I enjoy most about stories. It's that wrong-footed moment where you feel like you're set up for something, and then the narrative jogs the other way. It snaps you around and suddenly makes you look at the world and the characters in a way that you hadn't before. I love it, and I do it as many times as possible.
There's a moment, for example, where we get the story that Janet tells about what she was doing, actually during The Magician King, when all the other characters were off saving the world. I felt like I was trying to set it up one way, that she going to have a certain kind of revelation, and then it completely sort of explodes in her face. It's a kind of anti-climax because it's not what you expect, but still exciting.
Todd VanDerWerff: Were there some of these characters that you introduced in book one, or even book two, that became more significant than you were anticipating?
Lev Grossman: Yeah, almost all of them, Julia most of all. Julia was a genuine throwaway character and in the first draft of The Magicians, she never came back. She was in the fist scene, and then she just vanished. A lot of these characters, like Elliot and Janet, they showed up as kind of non-player characters, and then over time they became playable. I spent so much time with them that I realized that they were a bit more than stock characters. They had layers to them and I got very interested in them. I felt as though — it's a cliche but it's true — they were telling me things. They were saying, "Hey, we're in the story too, and we want to talk about how we feel about it." So I let them.
Todd VanDerWerff: You continue to work, at Time, as a critic and a reporter. What side of yourself does that feed that novels don't?
Lev Grossman: It's easy when you're writing fantasy to go down the rabbit hole and just get consumed by this inner world which is coming out of you. You don't do any research for it. You make it up, and you build it, and I could stay there for the rest of my life.
Time is a very good influence on me, because it sends me places and makes me talk to people, and not books people. I spend a lot of time of talking to engineers, people who build things, people who make changes in the real world, as opposed to what I do. It's a good thing for a writer to stay in contact with the real world, and it can be tough for a fantasy writer, because you spend so much time elsewhere. But working as a journalist keeps me in contact with reality.
Todd VanDerWerff: What do you think you've most learned about writing over the course of writing this trilogy?
Lev Grossman: I have learned things, because this knowledge changes sort of quietly as the trilogy goes along. When I wrote The Magicians, I started it at at time when I still thought of myself as a literary novelist. I wanted to be Jonathan Franzen or Jhumpa Lahiri or Zadie Smith. When I wrote The Magicians, it was a huge deal for me to put that aside, and say, "No, honestly, there are things that those books don't do for me, and I want to write a book that does those things." It was huge rebellion against my parents, who were both English professors.
But you can see in The Magicians, the language is thicker than it is in The Magician's Land. It's more literary. I'm more interested in language in The Magicians. By The Magician's Land, I'm more interested in pace. I'm more interested in storytelling than I was in The Magicians. I'm more in love with plot and less in love with style in The Magician's Land. Which I see as a good trend, so it's going to continue.
Todd VanDerWerff: You've said this is the end of this series. How did you consciously want to mark it as an ending?
Lev Grossman: I looked at a lot of last books while I was writing this. I looked at the way people ended series. It's a tricky business because it would be so much simpler if you could simply kill everybody and then salt the earth so nothing grows there ever again. But they have to have lives after the book ends. You just have to know that their story is over, which is a tricky thing and I don't think all series manage it.
I think the key is that the characters become who they're supposed to be. When The Magicians begins, Quentin is somebody, but he's obviously not going to stay that way, because he would be insufferable for the rest of his life. He's not the person he's meant to be. By the end of The Magician's Land, you know who he is. He's who he should be, and he's going to stay that way for the rest of his life. He was done growing, and you want to really make the reader feel that.
And then of course, there's just a lot of things blowing up. That also tells you that you're at the end. You really max out the special effects budget.
And you break all your rules, that's another thing. People are dismissive of the Twilight books, but I admire them, and in particular, I admire the last one, because [Stephenie Meyer] breaks all the rules that she'd set up that really, up to that point, made the series work. Bella could never had sex with Edward, and Bella could never become a vampire. That tension powered the whole series, and in the fourth book, she throws it away. She breaks all the rules, and then you know she's done. I wanted to do a bit of that too.
Todd VanDerWerff: Toward the end of the book, you say something along the lines of, some things just didn't pay off like you were expecting them to. Were there things you yourself had thought you might call back to, or might bring back that you never found space for it?
Lev Grossman: That's a question that calls upon me to be very indiscreet. I spend a lot of time thinking about James. In the very first scene in The Magicians, it's Quentin — major major character — Julia — major major character — then James. What happened to James? There's also that watch that Quentin acquires.
Those things, you look at them and they're ticking time bombs. Are they going to go off? And not all the bombs go off, which was important to me, because it's not real life, it's a story. But it has to reflect what the real life is like. It has to feel like real life. I don't know about your life, but my life, there's a lot that doesn't pay off. I have to suspect it'll never pay off. It feels like something's being set up, and then nothing happens. That's a feeling that I'm familiar with. That note has to be in there as well.
Todd VanDerWerff: What's next for you as a writer, and what's next for this series as it moves into other media?
Lev Grossman: Interesting things I hope. While I was working on The Magician's Land, I wrote about half of another novel at the same time, which is a weird thing to do, and I've never done it before. But I got really interested in an idea, and it wouldn't wait, I had to write out a substantial part of it. Now I'm going back to it and then finishing that book. It's not a fantasy novel. It's not a reality novel, definitely impossible things happen in it. But I have high hopes for it, and if it proceeds at the standard rate, I should finish it next year — sometime, hopefully, early next year.
So yeah, I'm starting new things, I'm telling new stories, and then at the same time, The Magicians is taking on new life most obviously, as a TV show, which is fine. I feel like I know so much more about The Magicians and what I was trying to do than I realized at the time when I wrote it. I wouldn't write it differently, but I was doing things without being aware of it. And now I look back and think, "Oh right, that was happening," and "That's why I did that." So it's interesting to return to it with literally 10 years after I started it, and be reminded of how much I still love it even though my life has changed so much since I started it.
It'll be interesting to see it get in front of different audiences in different ways. The TV show, it doesn't run exactly the way that the books do because TV stories are structured differently. So it's interesting to watch them reshape it in that way. And there are other Magicians things that they're going to happen that I can't talk about yet. But it's having its afterlife, in a way that some books do.
Todd VanDerWerff: Is that satisfying?
Lev Grossman: It's very satisfying. It's very fun to watch. When I think about where I was at when I started The Magicians. I was in another house, another marriage, I've felt like I was stuck, professionally and personally. The fact this book lived and made it as far as it has, I never would have believed it. If you told 2004 me, I never would have believed it. It is really satisfying.