Lev Grossman's The Magician's Land
Lev Grossman's The Magician's Land concludes his genre-bending, brilliant, acerbic rethinking of the entire high fantasy genre, and does so with enormous style and skill. It's easy to take cheap shots at the thrice-brewed tea of Tolkien, but Grossman's moves are subtle, filled with understanding and affection, and offer no mercy to cherished illusions.
In The Magicians, Lev Grossman shattered every high fantasy genre convention with a story that savaged Narnia and Hogwarts by sending real misfit, bright kids to them to play out all the dysfunctional emotional drama that swirls around every gifted program in the world. In The Magician King, Grossman tore open the idea of neat, contained, systemic magic and countered with a wild and unknowable thing that owes more to wild bohemian counterculture than it does to formal, Masonic hierarchy. Now comes The Magician's Land, the concluding volume in the trilogy, and it does all the things you want in a third book: winding up everyone's stories, tying up the loose ends -- and giving you a bit more than you bargained for.
Like nearly all fantasy stories, the Magicians trilogy is a coming-of-age tale, through which Quentin Coldwater and his friends discover that their ambition, their wonder, and their dreams are all more precious and less special than they'd ever dreamed. The point of lesser coming-of-age stories is to ride on someone's shoulder as he attains maturity. Grossman, though, takes us quite some distance past the attainment of maturity, finding new heights well beyond the the crescendo of adulthood. Watching Grossman's characters come to grips with their adult selves is every bit as interesting as watching them attain those selves had been.
Speaking of crescendos, it's important to note that this book has a hell of a climax. A key difference between "literary" novels and novels that come out of the sf/f ghetto is that the pulp-tradition writers can plot. As William Gibson says in one of the interviews in the excellent Conversations with William Gibson:
The only kind of ghetto arrogance I can summon up from being a science fiction writer is, I can do fucking plot. I can feel my links to Dashiell Hammett. If I meet some guy who subsists on teaching writing in colleges, and if there's any kind of hostility, I think, I can do plot. I've still got wheels on my tractor. The great thing is when you're doing the other stuff and you whip the plot into gear, then you know you're driving something really weird.
Starting very early in Magician's Land, Grossman kicks off a series of escalating magical battles, each more fantastic, taut, and brutal than the last, which comes to a head in the final chapters with a world-shattering Götterdämmerung scene that stands with great war at the climax of The Return of the King. At the same time, Grossman never loses sight of the idea of magic as unknowable and unsystematized, a thread of Borgesian Big Weird that culminates in a beautiful tribute to Borges himself.
It's this welding together of adventure-fiction plotstuff and introspective, moody characterization that makes this book, and the trilogy it concludes, so worthy of your reading time, and your re-reading time.
Grossman is part of a remarkable family. His identical twin brother, Austin Grossman, is a legendary game developer whose novels Soon I Will Be Invincible and YOU, are fantastic reads in their own right (2013's YOU visits a lot of the same themes that are found in Magician's Land, but in such a different direction that the two books are more interesting for their contrasts than their similarities). Lev and Austin's sister is the spectacular math-based 3D printer artist and sculptor Bathsheba Grossman, whose pieces are all over my office. I've asked both brothers if they'd ever tour as a family, and they've not ruled it out -- that would be a hell of a thing.
The Magician's Land
(Map image: Roland Chambers)
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