Recently I’ve been seeing advertisements for a new series on the ScyFy network: The Magicians, the first episode of which is available on You Tube, the next episodes being shown on the network. I have such mixed feelings about this. I so totally love the three books in this series that I do not want to see a television program mess them up (a la The Postman; have I mentioned before that I will never forgive Kevin Costner for the travesty he made of that, which was one of my all time favorite books?).
Whether or not you choose to watch the series, I heartily recommend that you read the books on which it’s based (I can’t tell from the preview whether the series just covers the book The Magicians or the whole series). If you have a taste for The Chronicles of Narnia or the Harry Potter books, you could hardly do better than to read The Magicians, The Magician King and The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman.
This is a series you really have to read in order, so start with The Magicians. This is a book about young adults learning how to be magicians, and what they do with their powers once they achieve them. Our protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, manages to get himself into this top secret, absolutely wonderful magic school called Brakebills (which is supposedly somewhere along the banks of the Hudson River, and I, for one, spent some time trying to guess where it was supposed to be located). Don’t think of Hogwarts; this feels so much more like an American college than a British boarding school, and the students there are pure and real adolescents, especially Quentin, who manages to make all kinds of mistakes and do things wrong, antagonize people, drink too much, take drugs, engage in inappropriate sex. There are some awesome things that happen at the school: when the students have to move to Brakebills South (which is at the other end of the earth), it’s an amazing sequence like nothing you’ve read in other fantasy books. Quentin’s secret is his love for a series of children’s books about a place called Fillory (which is very similar to the Narnia books), and when he discovers that there really IS a Fillory, and that he and his friends can go there and enter into the dangers of that world, he believes he’ll finally find his place and his purpose. Of course things are very different from the stories of his childhood, and Quentin and the others are forced to face their limitations and the possibility of failure. It’s a powerful book, which you can read by itself if you like (and when I read it, it was the only book in the series and I didn’t even know there would be other books), but if you enjoyed it as I did, you’ll want to move on immediately to the next book, which is deeper, stranger and more heart-rending.
The thing I tell people about The Magician King is that when I was reading it for the first time, I was moving my daughter to her new home in North Carolina, in August. August in North Carolina. Hot, sweaty, not my idea of fun. When everybody else was going swimming, I chose to stay indoors because I was almost finished with the book and I couldn’t bear to put it down — even when the alternative was swimming and cooling off. It was that good.
The Magician King starts after the end of The Magicians, but it also winds around to the beginning of that book, taking up the story of Julia, one of Quentin’s friends from his ordinary life in Brooklyn before he discovered and was discovered by Brakebills. Julia took the entrance exam for Brakebills when Quentin did, but she did not get in, so she had to find her way to magic via a different, and ultimately more dangerous, route. When Quentin gets thrown out of Fillory and is unable to find his way back through normal means, he joins up with Julia and follows her through the underground world of magic. Julia is a wonderful character, flawed and poignant, and when you find out what actually happened to her, and what her ultimate destiny is, you are both appalled and amazed. Even though this is the second book in a trilogy, it does not leave you hanging the way some second books do, and you could, if you wanted, stop there and still feel deeply satisfied (if somewhat saddened) by the way the series worked out.
But why should you stop there, now that there is a third book to read? I had to wait years between The Magician King and The Magician’s Land, but you can take the third one out immediately, and I recommend you do, while the events of The Magician King are still fresh in your mind. Quentin is once again in the “real world”, disgraced and alone. He becomes involved in a magical robbery of sorts which, because this is happening to Quentin, turns into a total disaster. His life entwines with that of Plum, a former Brakebills student, and people from his past return in surprising and ultimately very satisfying ways. It’s taken Quentin a long time to grow up, and a lot of the reviewers of The Magicians disliked the book because Quentin was (frankly) hard to love or even to like, but by the time we reach the end of the third book, he has come into his own and the entire series comes to a lovely and satisfying conclusion. This book was named as one of the best of the year on a number of year end lists, and it deserves all the accolades it received.