Thoughts on ‘The Magicians’ Trilogy

On Wednesday night I finished the final book in The Magicians trilogy, The Magician’s Land.

I used to do regular reviews of books I’d read to help me keep track of what I read over the course of the year. A couple years ago I stopped doing that. I’d like to start again.

Anyway, spoilers for the series below:

For those who don’t know, The Magicians trilogy is basically if both the Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia franchises were put into a blender and the resulting concoction was then tailored to adults via a healthy dose of violence, death, sex, and  general realism.

Unfortunately for The Magicians, I honestly believe the story gets worse as it goes on.

In the first book, the bookish and nerdy protagonist Quentin Coldwater longs to be elevated out of his seemingly perfect life as a very bright, very wealthy kid destined for the upper echelon of society. This part irked the fucking shit out of me because it reeked of “It’s so hard to be a rich, white male” syndrome – not my cup of tea. Also he has an unrequited love interest in a friend named Julia (I’m not a fan of “My life sucks because I can’t get any” storylines). Thankfully though, the major cause of Quentin’s malaise is his obsession with a series of fantasy books about a magical world called Fillory and the journeys the Chatwin children (a family of English kids during the early 20th century) have there. He wishes there was something else in the world that could free him from the mundane…and he finds it.

It turns out magic is real. Quentin winds up at Brakebills, a surreptitious university teaching magic to those lucky enough to be attuned to it. Quentin is initially overjoyed but the boundless happiness leaves him as he finds out magic is just like anything else in life. It’s subject to all the same sorts of pressures of his old life back in Brooklyn.

Initially, I was worried Quentin would become precociously powerful. Thankfully that didn’t happen.

Eventually Quentin meets some other kids (Janet, who is the worst character in the series and shouldn’t have had anywhere near as much time devoted to her in the second and third books, Eliot, Josh, Penny, etc). One thing I was worried about was his romance with a character named Alice (it was extremely predictable and boring – but later it got good for a reason I’ll explain shortly).

Perhaps my favorite scene in the book is when Quentin comes back home during a school break. He runs into Julia, his old crush. Turns out she had attended the Brakebills entrance exam and failed. They’re supposed to wipe your memory but somehow (they explain in the second book) Julia remembered. She glimpsed the “world behind the world” and it utterly ruined her. She figured out how to cast a single useless spell after countless hours of internet research. She showed Quentin and begged him to either help her get into Brakebills or just teach her magic on the side. He refused. This scene broke my heart because you could feel Julia’s desperation.

Eventually Quentin and his friends all graduate – but they find the ‘real world’ lacking, even with their magical abilities. Quentin and Eliot languish and teeter on the edge of alcoholism. Meanwhile, Quentin’s relationship with Alice deteriorates and he winds up cheating on her with Janet. In retaliation she sleeps with Penny (who is essentially Quentin’s frenemy).

Oh, and it turned out Fillory was real and Penny found a way in. Initially I HATED this twist. I had loved seeing magic play out in the real world (though I wanted to see more of how it interfaced with the inner workings of said world). However, it grew on me eventually as the characters find out that while Fillory is a land of magic and fantasy, magic and fantasy can be fucking violent, horrifying, and deadly.

At the end of the first book the crew has a run-in with Martin Chatwin a.k.a. ‘The Beast.’ Martin is one of the children from the Fillory novels who went missing. Turned out he became a magic-practicing monster who’d been terrorizing Fillory for decades. Martin maims Penny and nearly kills Quentin. Alice, the most powerful of the group, turns herself into a dragon to face off with Martin. She manages to wound him but ultimately turns back after suffering an injury. She tries casting an even more powerful spell but becomes a ‘niffin’ – a spirit made entirely of magic. In her niffin form she decapitates Martin and vanishes, essentially dying.

I LOVED that she died because it’s realistic and it makes Quentin go through actual trauma and it made me feel powerful emotions which is what a fiction book is for.

Quentin returns to the real world after he recovers from his wounds in a Fillorian ‘hospital’ of sorts. He goes back to earth and gets a sinecure at some office and languishes for a year or so. One day at work, Eliot and Janet show up outside his window flying in the air. Julia is there, too, also flying. She somehow learned magic. They beg him to come to Fillory with them and he agrees.

That’s the cliffhanger at the end of the first book.

The second book is a little different. Quentin, Eliot, Janet, and Julia are all kings/queens of Fillory. The book is split in half (or thereabout). Half the book traces Julia’s past. It follows Julia’s travels through the underground magic scene during the time period that Quentin was at Brakebills. The other half is current, following Quentin’s adventures in Fillory.

See, magic is dying. It turns out magic is the tool the old gods used to create existence. They accidentally left the switch on, so to speak, which allowed humans and other species to use it. They’re back now, and they’re rewiring all of existence to end magic. Fillory – the only world made entirely of magic – is a ‘backdoor’ in the patchwork of the cosmos that Quentin and his friends must use to lock the gods back out of the system to save magic. To do this, they need to find seven golden keys.

The second book is tons of fun and emotionally gripping (Julia, IMHO, is a more relatable and tragic protagonist than Quentin and my heart ached during every one of her chapters. There’s few feelings more crushing than not being able to have something you’d do literally anything for).

But one thing ruins the second book: How the old gods came back in the first place, and the source of Julia’s magic prowess that’s displayed throughout the Fillory sections (and the bodily transformations she’s going through like her eyes turning black and her height increasing).

Julia befriends some of the most powerful underground magic users in the world throughout the flashback portion of the book. They all hang out in a villa in France. Their goal is to basically get straight to the source of magic to reach new heights of power. To this end, they do a bunch of research and believe gods mentioned in mythology might actually be real and might be metaphysical fonts of magic. So they do a summoning ritual they believe will summon a benevolent harvest/fertility god of sorts.

Instead, it summons a trickster god named Reynard The Fox who murders all of Julia’s friends save for one and then graphically rapes Julia. When he ejaculates inside her she becomes more attuned to magic and significantly more powerful in a truly disgusting, heinous, unnecessary, offensive, literal version of the toxic “rape = empowerment” trope.

The summoning of Reynard tipped the old gods off that magic was still around, prompting them to come back and attempt to turn it off. So not only does Julia get raped, but it’s also her fault that magic was almost destroyed. Cool!

So yeah, that ruined the entire second book for me.

The third book was unnecessary. Fillory is dying. They save it. A handful of loose ends are tied up. They introduce a tenaciously boring and wholly forgettable character named Plum who has about a third of the book dedicated to her. Janet has too much “screen time” for a character who’s atrocious. Julia become some kind of Dryad goddess (this technically happened towards the end of the second book but it’s made more official at the end of the third).

Quentin also brings his dead girlfriend Alice back to life (or rather, he manages to turn her from a niffin into a human). This ruined the third book for me as what I love about fantasy books like the A Song of Ice and Fire series is that death is permanent, just like real life! So in the end of the third book literally everything works out happy for everyone. Fillory is saved, Quentin creates his own magical world and he lives there with Alice. The end. Blah.

I’m still very glad I read this series though. The next book (though technically I’m not finished with the current one, just between drafts as I wait for feedback from the final beta readers) I want to write is modern fantasy not unlike The Magicians, so I learned a lot about how to write magic into the world well and how to build a magic system without it making the storytelling too cumbersome.

I also learned of my own limitations as a storyteller. I initially thought it was asinine to kill Martin Chatwin at the end of the first book. “He’d be a great series antagonist! They can try to hunt him for three books,” I thought. I tend to imagine my fiction stories as video games before novels. “Martin Chatwin should be the series antagonist” is more video game-like thinking. Killing Martin Chatwin allows the story to go more places (though ultimately it went to places not worth going to).

Next on the reading list is CivilWarLand in Bad Decline!