He stood there for a long time, feeling the cool roughness of the stone rim. It was reassuringly solid. The fountain was his last connection to his old life, the one where he'd been a king in a magical land. He didn't want it to be over; it wouldn't really be over till he let go and walked away. He could still have it for a little longer.
But no, he couldn't. It was done. He patted the fountain one more time and set off through the empty dream-city. He felt weightless and empty. He'd stopped being who he was, but he wasn't sure yet who he was going to be next. His head was still full of the End of the World: the setting sun, the endless thin curving beach, the two mismatched wooden chairs, the ringing crescent moon, the sputtering comets. The last sight of Julia, diving off the edge of Fillory, straight down to the Far Side of the World, down into her future.
It was a new beginning for her, but he'd hit a dead end. No more Fillory. No further. (p. 15)
It has been a long and winding road for Quentin Coldwater, the main protagonist in Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy. From an insecure, chronically depressed youth whose uncertainty and low self-esteem would manifest itself in bursts of petty spitefulness to the harrowed, grieving magician-king seeking new quests in the magical world of Fillory (itself an analogue to Narnia) in order to feel the void in his life caused by the apparent death of his ex-girlfriend Alice, Quentin has suffered mightily. And rather vocally, to the displeasure of those who have little patience for those whose discomfort is made visible to all. Yet in the twelve years from his arrive at the magical college of Brakebills to his recent expulsion from Fillory, Quentin has changed. It is this change that provides the anchor around which the action of the concluding volume, The Magician's Land, transpires.
The action begins in media res, with Quentin and a girl, Plum (who had appeared earlier in a short story connected to the trilogy), attending a secret magicians' meeting. The reader is not given any information other than there is a reward for an object that is being guarded. Quentin and Plum, both desperate for income (the reasons for this are made clear in a later chapter), are chosen to participate in this hunt/theft. From there, the first third or so of the novel bounces from this "present" back several months to when Quentin, newly arrived on Earth, is granted a professorship at his old university. In addition, there are a few chapters about some disturbing changes going on in Fillory, as it seems old boundaries are failing and an end for the magical land may be nigh.
These early chapters take some time establishing a good rhythm, but around halfway in, the disparate threads connect. The magical object turns out to have a direct bearing on what is occurring in Fillory, but there is more to it. Quentin has taken upon himself an impossible task: the creation of a new land. Much of the middle third revolves around his quest to achieve the infinitely improbable, all the while being literally haunted by the spirit of the one he most cherishes. Grossman does a good job in showing how Quentin's character has been changing throughout the series, but here in The Magician's Land, it becomes most visible. There are several scenes where Quentin has to confront old, sometimes abandoned relationships and in them, through his vague sense of loss and acute hurt, we see the changes that have occurred over the past twelve years. Now 30, he has developed a sense of empathy that the Quentin of the first two volumes did not possess.
This changing attitude can be seen in his interactions with Plum, who herself bears emotional scars from her childhood. Her role in the concluding book is a major one, but even more than what she represents from a plot standpoint, her character is central to showing Quentin's maturation. She is not his sidekick or his lover, but her interactions with him show how the breast-obsessed Quentin of The Magicians has come to appreciate women for more than their sexuality. She is a strong character, one for whom magic is still a thing of wonder, and it is her steady yet buoyant personality that makes the first half of the book hold together.
There are others who undergo changes. Janet in particular, through a story she narrates to Eliot after he has returned after the events of The Magician King, has grown perhaps more than any other character. Her cynical, jaded promiscuous behavior, the source of division among the Physical Kids of Brakebills, has changed into something much more resolute and empathic. Although she is not given as much space as several of the other characters, her character development serves as a parallel to Quentin's. This parallel and others illustrates an important theme in the series, that of how maturation relates to dreams, beliefs, and magic.
The final third of the novel ties all of these thematic, characterization, and plot developments into something truly remarkable. While there were times earlier in the novel that it felt like Grossman was close to belaboring his points, by the final 120 pages or so, everything just flows together wonderfully. The Narnia parallels, which I had presumed existed so Grossman could utilize a familiar invented setting to make a point about our own world, are developed beyond what I had anticipated. Quentin's desire to create a new, magical land stems not an arrogant desire to be a creator (although elements of this do blight his first, failed attempt), but instead is more an outgrowth of his new-found desire to understand rather than to be understood. It is a touching moment when he realizes this and this new Quentin ends up having the strength to not just confront his most haunting memory but to mend the damage done. This mending quality is explored in several places in the concluding chapters and by novel's end, we see, if not a Fillory and Quentin Unmarred (to lift a line from Tolkien), but a Fillory and Quentin Mended. There are others at story's end who are also on their way to redemption, but only one other factors into the conclusion and just who that is would spoil the magic for those who intend to read this book.
In reading the final chapters, more so than thinking about how well Grossman constructed this conclusion and how much his characters had developed into mature, adult human beings, I was left thinking about those little acts of magic that occur when a person dreams of a different setting, of different outcomes and with worlds to explore. In remembering myself as a younger reader who would daydream of historical events, I felt this sense of wonder sweep across me; behold, all things are now made new. It is this sense of astonished wonder that Grossman explores in his final chapters. It explains Quentin, yes, but it also explores why certain readers like to imagine themselves as magicians or wise rulers or valiant warriors or mysterious sages. Our individual acts of sub-creation breathe life and meaning into the world around us. As Quentin muses near the end:
The world was fucking awful. It was a wretched, desolate place, a desert of meaninglessness, a heartless wasteland, where horrific things happened all the time for no reason and nothing good lasted for long.
He'd been right about the world, but he was wrong about himself. The world was a desert, but he was a magician, and to be a magician was to be a secret spring – a moving oasis. He wasn't desolate, and he wasn't empty. He was full of emotion, full of feelings, bursting with them, and when it came down to it that's what being a magician was. (p. 399)
Reading his journey to this point of observation has made The Magician's Land not only the best in the trilogy but also one of the more profound secondary world fantasies that I have read in some time. Highly recommended.