The first book in Lev Grossman’s magician trilogy, The Magicians, is one of my favorite books. Its two sequels, The Magician King and The Magician’s Land are not.
Briefly, The Magicians is about Quentin, a high school senior obsessed with books about Fillory (Narnia by another name). One day he finds out magic is secretly real, and is enrolled at Brakebills (Hogwarts by another name) for college. Quentin studies magic, graduates, finds out Fillory is also real, and then off he goes adventuring. Both halves of the book are clearly inspired by the Harry Potter and Narnia series, but with more cursing and booze, and with enough satire or parody to keep it fresh. Grossman’s writing here is a fine combination of smart and sassy.
The Magician King is a direct sequel in which Quentin attempts to have another adventure, now as the King of Fillory, but is exiled back to earth and struggles to return. This narrative alternates with a series of flashbacks that recount Julia’s (Quentin’s high school crush, only very briefly introduced in Magicians) story during the time Quentin was at Brakebills. It’s an ok novel, but not nearly as good as Magicians.
The Magician’s Land is the third, and hopefully last, novel. It has a plot, but it’s really just a rambling tale tying up loose ends from the previous two novels. But the thing is, those loose ends didn’t need tying up. I didn’t even realize most of them were loose ends until they were reintroduced here. The writing isn’t nearly as funny or entertaining.
I highlighted dozens of passages from Magicians on my Kindle. Even after multiple reads, it’s still fun to flip back to random passages and reread Magicians. There’s a few satisfying scenes in King, but also a lot that can be skipped. Grossman has the high achieving but insecure teenage boy characterization nailed. The depressed, broken Julia, not so much. As for Land, I don’t plan to reread any of it. In fact, a fair bit of the time I was nominally reading Land, I was actually going back and rereading Magicians.
Looking back, I think what makes Magicians work so well is that it has a pretty flexible chronology. Several years are compressed into a single book, which gives the novel a kind of highlight reel effect. Both sequels instead take place over much shorter timeframes. The fun parts can’t simply be strung together as a series of anecdotes, instead we are forced to slog through various amounts of exposition. Grossman’s writing isn’t enough to keep things interesting. His wordplay is clever when events are exciting; mundane events get mundane words.
Quentin also grows up. Mopey adults are less cool than mopey kids. Young Quentin pounds booze because he’s in a tavern sitting across from a talking bear and getting drunk is a great way to make something happen. Old Quentin sits around drinking wine because he’s sad and has no friends.
Hearty recommendation for The Magicians, at least to anyone interesting in a sarcastic take on Harry Potter. Qualified recommendation for The Magician King for fans of the first book. No recommendation for Magician’s Land.