In Narnia, once a king or queen, always a king or queen.
But in Fillory, the magic land in Lev Grossman’s genre-bending fantasy trilogy, once you’re out on your ear, you’re on your own. That’s where Quentin finds himself in The Magician’s Land, Grossman’s thoroughly satisfying finale to a series that references C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling while remaining refreshingly original.
At the end of the second book, “The Magician King,” Quentin was exiled by Ember, one of twin rams who serve as the somewhat-less-benevolent Aslan figures in Fillory.
“Six months ago he’d been a king in a magic land, another world, but that was all over,” Grossman writes. “He’d been kicked out of Fillory, and he’d been kicked around a fair bit since then, and now he was just another striver, grim and desperate, trying to scramble back in, up the slippery slope, back toward the light and the warmth.”
In need of a job, he wanders back to Brakebills, the wizarding school in upstate New York that trained him, where he learns that his specialty is the “repair of small objects.” Like a chair, he wonders? More like a coffee cup, he’s told.
“It was a bit of an anticlimax. You couldn’t call it sexy, exactly,” Quentin muses ruefully, which is his new default mode. “Not breaking new ground, so much. He wouldn’t be striding between dimensions, or calling down thunderbolts, or manifesting patroni, not on the strength of repair of small objects. Life was briskly and efficiently stripping Quentin of his last delusions about himself, one by one, shucking them off in firm hard jerks like wet clothes, leaving him naked and shivering.
“But he wasn’t going to die of exposure,” Quentin thinks.
Being the decidedly Not-Chosen One proves good for Quentin, who finally does something the 30-year-old had been putting off for years: Grow up. And it’s incredibly bracing for a fantasy series, which often center – as the first book did – around a lonely teenager suddenly discovering that everyone has been all wrong about him or her, and that he or she secretly had fabulous powers all along.
“The Magician’s Land” is that rare novel that looks at what happens after the child prodigy grows up and has to get a job.
“Quentin knew he was a little old to be wrestling with questions like this – probably he should have had them wrapped up by around puberty – but he’d always paid more attention to magical problems than to the personal kind,” he thinks (ruefully) after his estranged dad dies.
As Quentin starts learning how to put things right in the real world, Eliot and Janet and the other two kings and queens of Fillory are fighting off invaders (in as ethical, casualty-free a manner as possible, per Eliot), only to learn that victory doesn’t matter: Fillory is dying.
Grossman consciously echoes “The Last Battle” (my least favorite of “The Chronicles of Narnia”) while turning that novel’s conclusion on its ear in a wholly gratifying way. “The Magician’s Land” also features the return of a character sorely missed by both Quentin and readers alike, as well as Grossman’s trademark witty dialogue.
“I bet it’s because of heresy like that that the world is ending. Your earthy, irreverent sense of humor has doomed us all,” King Josh tells Queen Janet. (If Peter was “The Magnificent,” and Edmund was “The Just,” in Narnia, Janet of Fillory should just be known as “The Awesome.”)
If that’s not enough of a selling point, “The Magician’s Land” also features a motto that should be emblazoned on T-shirts, embroidered on pillows, and hung on walls in dorm rooms everywhere: “Give a nerd enough time and a door he can close and he can figure out pretty much anything.”
As rallying cries go, you could do a lot worse.