Bite-Size Binge: Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” Trilogy


When The Magicians first came to me, it was a world post-Harry Potter. The last two movies had yet to come out, and I was clinging on to them like they were the last vestiges of my childhood. Because they were, along with Bandit, my stubbornly mortal border collie.

Harry Potter was and is one of the most precious and wonderful things in my life. I grew up with them, and found the world a scary place without them. Yes, I could reread them, or could join its growing online community, but it’s not the same. It was time to move on, to actually grow up.

I had pretty much given up on finding a book series that would delight and inspire and spark my imagination in the same ways. Then Lev Grossman’s The Magicians was published in 2009, I devoured it, and realized it was the natural extension in my own Quest to identify my life with fantasy literature rather than actual life. It’s better.

The Magicians is Harry Potter filled with a bunch of assholes who have sex, do drugs and have tremendous power, damn the consequences. But that’s not all it is: Lev Grossman’s world stretched beyond any simple comparison. It had elements of all the great fantasy (Lewis, Tolkien, T.H. White, Martin), a meta and self-aware modern fantasy world that dipped its mythology into different worlds like ice cream in fudge, or a fledgling crack addict in crime. It’s certainly not as new or vivacious as, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth was/is, but how many fantasy series’ throw out nerdy pop-culture references, or quotes Scarface during its climax? Grossman uses and manipulates what we know of the fantasy genre to fill out his world, making fun of the tried and true elements of a Quest and Story, while also revering them just the same.

(Plus there’s world maps, the quickest way to a fantasy nerd’s heart.)


I love the world-building. You think you don’t care about another magical school (meet Brakebills!), but when the depressed and brilliant Quentin Coldwater, who grew up loving the Fillory novels, a stand-in for C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia (or whatever book series you grew up loving), discovers magic is real, it feels like what would actually happen. But Brakebills is a college and so Quentin’s put through a grueling exam, like the LSAT (or O.W.L.’s, I suppose) of magical entrance exams, where he was tasked with creating a language, a history of the fictional people who spoke it, and the dynamics of the world they lived in. I was fucking riveted. And besides, Quentin and the Physical Kids that he befriends once he gets in, skip through school in half of the first novel. You’re just watching the schooling go by, Grossman churning through brilliant classes, spells, education like a drunk guy rifling through a Rolodex (in a world where people would still have a Rolodex). I was almost mad, but that was kind of the point, these kids were absorbing knowledge much too fast for their own good.

I remember after I finished The Magicians, I was shocked to discover there was a sequel planned. It was like falling out of your chair and into the age before release dates are planned decades in advance, ruining the fun. That’s how great a surprise The Magicians was.

On a reread The Magicians drags, and the hollow, self-absorbed, arrogant characters hurt your heart more and more, but thankfully, Grossman doesn’t let them off scot-free, and in spite of hating these characters, they’re three-dimensional, and authentic. If a misanthropic 18 year old was given the keys to a magical kingdom and with it, untold power, what do you think will happen? Nothing good.

The Magicians is about a group of unhappy, self-loathing geniuses who don’t have a place in the world, even AFTER they become magicians. It’s a treatise on unhappy people and what that means. Magic doesn’t solve your problems. It exacerbates them.


As the series progresses, Grossman blows out the world to even greater heights. We see the underground realm of magic, as we’re introduced to what Janet, Quentin’s high school crush he leaves behind, had to do to reach his level (and surpass it). It’s startling, dark, and freaking cool, but even she has a reckoning for her magical trespasses. These characters aren’t easily forgiven, in fact, they oftentimes lose everything. It’s depressing; imagine knowing magic exists, but being kicked out of the world? Quentin, Eliot, Janet and Josh grow up, change, and slowly, painfully so, become the kinds of heroes you can root for. It’s as if Grossman purposefully made his characters unforgivable…until they somehow aren’t, subverting the very notion of what a protagonist really is. He made me like Janet, something that felt more impossible than escaping the Underworld, getting a talking sloth to shut up, hopping through the multiverse, or talking to a dragon. Which, I’ve learned, is hard to do.


In The Magician’s Land, the last book of the series that came out this August, things start out slowly. Grossman so thoroughly broke it all down at the end of The Magician King (my favorite of the three), that it took him a few hundred pages to build everything back up. But even so, the last half of the book packed a tremendous wallop, one where I wanted to pause and take note, to relish every word, but I was too busy flying through it, faster than a Hippogriff in flight during the apocalypse.

The Magician’s Land and its two predecessors are a critique and loving tribute of all the fantasy that have come before it. A series that has ram Gods, Cozy Horses and drunks. Like Unwritten, it wallows in the power of Story, and takes the notion of what can be done in fantasy to lengths you’ve never imagined. It’s too smart for its own good, and knows it, and bulls forward anyways. The Magicians series isn’t perfect, but like Harry Potter, it proved to be the perfect, sarcastic companion for a certain period of my life, one that’s right now. It’s a transcendent piece of adult fantasy I look forward to giving my miserable kids when they inevitably hate my guts.

I didn’t think there would be another Harry Potter. And there won’t be, but there will be other books, other worlds, other Adventures, ones I can’t wait to discover, ones I won’t be ready to let go. The Magicians series was one of them. Thus is life.


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  1. I’m more than a year and a half late for a timely comment on this, but I just finished the trilogy (on audiobook) and am going to comment anyway. SPOILERS or whatever.

    First, I should open by saying that I loved it overall. I don’t think it had the same sort of deeper impact on me that it did for you, but it was immensely entertaining and very cleverly written.

    You mentioned Unwritten, which became one of my favorite comic books of all time, and I too thought of it several times while reading the Magicians trilogy. Both Mike Carey and Lev Grossman partook in a fascinating literary device that’s hard to do well. They each took an established and infamously well-known property (Harry Potter in each, but even moreso Narnia for Grossman) and used it as a shorthand comparison for the magical world they were creating; then they each used that baseline expectation to pivot hard and create very different worlds that greatly diverge from their allusions. It’s a difficult strategy because it would be so hard to do well; one need only think of any number of modern pitches. (“It’s like Twilight, but without vampires!” “It’s Game of Thrones, but on a cruise ship!”) But done as well as those authors do, I find it brilliant. Everyone is already going to think Harry Potter anyway when you say “magical school,” so why not use that to toy a little with your readers? Grossman having Quentin go in with that same reference in mind, only to be largely turned upside down by how his Brakebills reality differs from Hogwarts, is a great way to acknowledge the elephant in the room and then make his own creation pack a little more umph.

    I’m fond of the HP universe, but certainly not as formed by it as you. But for a relatively brief yet notable part of my childhood, Narnia might have been close to that for me. Fillory was of course the same kind of stand-in/pivot: magical kingdom, talking animal god(s), four kings and queens, history largely dominated by children of one family. I wonder if that track of a darker parallel was part of why I too liked Magician King best of the trilogy, since much of its narrative followed a very loose similarity to Voyage of the Dawn Trader, which had been my favorite of C.S. Lewis’s series once upon a time. But mostly, I think it was just the genuine best.

    I enjoyed The Magicians, particularly the breakneck speed at which the entire magical college experience flew by. Most of the magical learning itself was only tangentially interesting; the meat of the narrative always focused on the personal drama that interwove with the education. The most captivating educational experience of the section was Brakebills South, and even that was more engrossing for the descriptions of the harsh conditions and their impact on the students; the actual learning was still just rote memorization. An aside: of all the many books I’ve read with POV descriptions of arctic fox sex, this was surely the best.

    The drag in the book came after Brakebills and before Fillory (and maybe even the initial parts of Fillory). As you said, these characters are unhappy and self-loathing, and that makes them incredibly fascinating; but when we enter that stretch of dwelling on their self-destructive tendencies without magic to fill the excitement void, it becomes a bit of a slog. I get Grossman’s point is that magic, by itself, can’t make miserable people less miserable – but it does make the narrative easier to get through. That said, the brief slog is worth the while, because it’s an amazing set-up to take these characters on the magical adventure of their lifetime right at the moment that every single one of them (except Penny, I guess) is at a personal low. It’s the Fellowship, if everyone in the Fellowship hated each other and themselves.

    The climax of Book 1 alone would make the series worthwhile. The untrustworthy god, the reveal of the Beast as Martin Chatwin (which I never saw coming), and Alice’s masterful duel with it culminating in sacrifice. It was enthralling.

    And that took us into Book 2, which had the unenviable task of making good on the promise of this bold appropriation of a fantasy world. Somehow, it managed. Quentin had seemed to reach a sort of inner enlightenment at the end of Book 1, but we find him having gotten all his dreams (minus Alice) and still unsatisfied. I was disappointed at first by having him return to Earth, but it didn’t last an excessive time, had some really fun plot points (the dragon meeting, the return to the original Chatwin home), and gave Julia a chance to take the lead, which played well with the Julia flashbacks interspersed throughout the book.

    Julia herself became a quite interesting character, scraping by in her brutal quest to become a magician. I was especially taken by how she managed to remember Brakebills at all, triggered by a single faulty citation; I just loved having such a slight anal-retentive error setting off such a massive chain of events. Her backstory kept getting better and better, until we finally reached the source of her power…and it was that she got raped by a fox god. Um, the fuck? Look, I get the idea: this series is largely about the darker side of magic that doesn’t match up to traditional fairy tales, and within that structure, Julia’s is the even darker side. Reynard showing up and murderballing everyone was a thrilling scene until the end. But using being raped as the cause of her power, all in the name of being edgy and dark, felt really gross to me – not to mention lazy; there are other ways to put your characters through the wringer (as Julia’s storyline had already demonstrated), but she’s a woman, so Grossman went for the most obvious one.

    Despite that rather large misstep, Magician King managed to pack a lot of punch. Quentin’s one-man magical assault on the Benedict (RIP) Island fortress was second only to the Alice/Martin fight among the action scenes in the trilogy to me. The quest for the keys really came together well, weaving plotlines together expertly. The keys fairy tale, the sloth, the journey to hell, the return of Penny, the stakes for all of magic, Julia’s ascent – all of it. The ending, and Quentin’s punishment, is perfectly bittersweet. I think this was the most well-constructed book of the three.

    Magician’s Land, on the other hand, often felt ill-fitting despite some strong moments. It was a good book, but often didn’t stick the landing. There were so many decisions that felt close to being amazing but fell just a little short for me instead. Take Plum, the new addition to the gang, revealed to be the last of the Chatwin line, which was certainly a very cool idea. But our first at-length introduction to her comes in an interminably long flashback to her playing the world’s most inane and uninteresting practical joke ever, only to see it finally (after way, way too many pages) end in a briefly exciting disaster. There’s nothing likable about Plum in this flashback, which itself could be ok; this is a series that thrives on unlikable characters. But dammit, there’s not even anything interesting either. Later in the book, she does play an interesting role, through her connection to Rupert Chatwin and her quick thinking in the Neitherlands library. Yet by then, the boat had already sailed on making her a fun core character.

    A smaller misstep, but still a misstep to me, was the redemption of Janet, the most unlikable of all characters in the first two books. She tells Eliot an incredible story detailing her adventures while the rest of the gang was off doing their Book 2 plot, but the presentation makes it lose some of its power. First, it is just a recounting, and it loses some in-story realism that this character who’s never spoken for more than a few paragraphs at a time in the whole series suddenly opens up with this very long tale in which she’s nice enough to explain her own character. Second, it loses all immediacy by having her tell it all to Eliot in the present. I understand that there was likely no room for her story to happen in Book 2 where it belonged chronologically, but Grossman still could have used a flashback structure like he did in Book 2 for Julia. Putting all of this in the past, being retold in the present, automatically takes away the element of suspense, which is a shame, because her revenge at the end of the story was pretty awesome.

    Finally, Grossman tries to pull in fathers and sacrifice as major thematic pull, using Quentin’s father’s death and Mayakovsky’s arc to play some sort of groundwork for Quentin’s late-book growth and the climax with the rams. But neither Quentin’s father nor Mayakovsky had been built up as having any special significance to Quentin in Books 1 and 2 – or perhaps any significance at all – so their sudden use as a lynchpin in Quentin’s breakthrough felt unearned to me.

    Nevertheless, the final book did do a fair amount right, too. Giving some depth to Janet, even if clunkily done, was appreciated after how one-dimensional she had been up to that point. Giving us more time in Eliot’s POV was even better, and really showed that he might have grown the most of all characters over the course of the series. Bringing back in Umber and using him and Ember as the dark underpinnings of the end of the world (and its resurrection) was a final great twist to Grossman’s oh-so-dark take on Narnia. (I do wish we’d gotten inside Umber’s head more, though. I was stupefied in delight by Castle Blackspire and the revelation that Martin’s power came from selling his humanity to Umber – but Umber’s motivation in that transaction was only given a single throw-away line.)

    And then Fillory actually died. Sure, it was reborn, but we still experienced a genuine fantasy armageddon with no last-minute save until basically everyone in the entire world was dead. It was an epic, chaotic scene that largely made everything else worthwhile.

    As did the inevitable but appreciated return of Alice. The cat and mouse game between Quentin and her as a niffin might have dragged on too long, but his actual resurrection of her was still thrilling, as was her later return to her true humanity. In between, angry and hateful Alice also went on a bit long, but that too felt crucial; yet again, magic doesn’t make everything better, even when it can literally raise the dead.

    And in the end, I really appreciated the peaceful note we leave on. A world with no gods and endless possibilities, a link between Quentin’s new creation and Fillory, and a real sense of new beginning. After three books of so much angst and trouble and destruction, Grossman gives us a final note of tranquility. That alone is pretty damn magical.

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