Anyone who has been following the life story of Quentin Coldwater, the central character of Lev Grossman’s “Magicians” trilogy, has at one point or another wanted to reach into the books and shake him. He has had a nasty habit of getting everything he wants and still feeling unhappy, then ruining everything in an attempt to fix the problem. He’s immature, selfish, neurotic. In other words, the evolving portrait of Quentin is that of a reasonably realistic young person, albeit one with impressive magic powers, which generally only serves to exacerbate his missteps.
Anyone who hasn’t been following Quentin’s story may find the action a little confusing in “The Magician’s Land,” the latest and last book of the series, given how much of what transpires is payoff on the first two books. Even the introduction of a new character, Plum, as a sort of audience surrogate questioning the proceedings to elicit background is not quite enough to make what happens here totally explicable to newcomers.
Fans, however, will find “The Magician’s Land” a slightly uneven but satisfying ending to the series. It opens with Quentin, now approaching 30, trying to put his life back together, which has been something of a recurring problem for him throughout the books, and one of the stronger features of the series. This time Quentin is trying to deal with his new life after being cast out of his beloved Fillory.
Quentin has spent much of the first two books in that promised land. At the start of the series, he was plucked out of his Brooklyn, N.Y., high school to enroll at Brakebills, a sort of college version of Hogwarts. A self-professed nerd long obsessed with Fillory, the magical land in a Narnia-esque series of books, he’s head over heels for the entire concept that magic is real, and his journey to Fillory at the end of the first book seemed like the culmination of all he could hope.
But he learns all too quickly that a world with magic is just as full of heartbreak and cynicism as the one he was used to. The discovery that Fillory is real comes with its downsides and leads to tremendous loss. By the end of the second book, Quentin has been kicked out of Fillory, not because of any magical misdeeds, but because his attempt to avoid conflict with an old high school friend, Julia, leads her down a ruinously destructive path that he could have prevented by helping her.
“The Magician’s Land” opens with Quentin in the unexpected position of trying to earn a little cash alongside some people from the margins of the magical world. From there, the plot moves briskly if a little aimlessly among the various residents of Quentin’s universe, giving many of them a final curtain call — but more importantly for a series ender, a curtain call that feels right for each.
Grossman takes his time revealing how and why Quentin is with those shady characters. It has something to do with Plum, a student at Brakebills. And inevitably, it has a great deal to do with Fillory, which has come to represent something approaching a hybrid of heaven and Neverland.
The series has always relied heavily, and to good comedic effect, on meta-commentary. However, Grossman is sometimes a little too enamored of it here. There are times when the storytelling might be better served by just letting certain magic tropes lie, such as an over-annotated magical fight Quentin’s old friend Eliot has against an opponent back in Fillory.
A more straightforward effort by Quentin to create his own magical land works better. That the plan doesn’t pan out as expected is par for the course for Quentin, but the ways in which it comes out slightly off-target provides him with a final opportunity to grow up.
At the heart of the series has always been Quentin’s attempts, sometimes successful, sometimes not, to perform great and unusual magic, with a growing awareness of his own limitations as a magician and a person. But with this knowledge now comes a willingness to try things anyway, fail or not. It’s a hard-won personal achievement and one that turns out to be exactly what he needed all along. Saying goodbye to Quentin is bittersweet, but saying goodbye to a Quentin who achieves some peace at last fills the farewell with a reassuring optimism for his future.