American novelist and Time magazine book reviewer Lev Grossman painted himself into a bit of a corner. His first(ish) novel, 2009's The Magicians, was a critical darling and break-out hit. Then he wrote a sequel, 2011's The Magician King -- it was, if anything, even better.
Now a New York Times bestselling author twice over, with production on a television series based on his series receiving the official green light, and with one book to go in his trilogy, the bases were figuratively loaded. Everyone was watching for him to knock one out of the park.
He just might have done so.
Straddling the worlds of postmodern literature and contemporary, urban and high fantasy, this series tells the story of Quentin Coldwater, a high-performing and imminent high school graduate waylaid from his Ivy League plans by the promise of something even bigger: a secret college of sorcery called Brakebills Academy in upstate New York.
Quentin, socially inept, often selfish, and as insecure as he is talented, is better compared to Jesse Eisenberg's portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network than Harry Potter.
There's a core of goodness in Quentin, but Grossman doesn't always make him easy to like, and his close relationships are difficult, fragile things. His friends have their own problems: by and large, the sort of obsessive competitiveness Brakebills looks for doesn't often go hand-in-hand with being well-adjusted emotionally.
And magic isn't easy. It involves everything from calculus to ancient languages to painful finger exercises. The process of building a spell up from basic principles, then practising it, hundreds or thousands of times until it's performed exactly right, is somewhat like deriving a mathematical proof and preparing a Bach concerto and writing a piece of code all at once.
Thus far, this series seems like it could just as easily be billed as Microserfs for fantasy readers, or as Harry Potter for adults. But things take a different turn in The Magician's Land, because after five years of intense study (followed by a post-graduate period of sloth and hedonism) Quentin rediscovers his own sense of wonder, when it turns out the magical world of Fillory, Grossman's Narnia stand-in, is real.
Just as Brakebills proved quite different from Hogwarts, competitive and neurotic and manic, so too is the world of Fillory much different from Narnia, though not at first. In Grossman's universe, a series of books were written about a magical world, visited by the (now-famous) Chatwin children through a secret grandfather clock in a rambling house of 1930s England, mirroring C.S. Lewis' real-life series.
Only Quentin and his friends know that this parallel world really exists, and that the real-life Chatwin children actually went there, reporting at least some of their experiences to a neighbour with literary ambitions. But what really happened to them on the other side? Or afterwards?
What kind of psychological toll must it take for a child to literally enter a fantasy world, take part in actual wars, become royalty, experience months or years in the blink of an eye, and then be barred entry once they were deemed too old for that sort of thing? As the real history of the Chatwin children behind the Fillory books is revealed, the dark underside to their experiences is exposed.
C.S. Lewis ended The Last Battle, the final instalment of his Chronicles of Narnia books, by ending the world (of Narnia, not Earth). That's one more sub-plot in The Magician's Land, but perhaps still not the most important one.
More important is Quentin's journey to become the person he was meant to be -- not a hero of destiny, but just a good man and a fully realized human being.
Aslan knows that can be difficult enough.
Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.