by Lev Grossman
Hardcover, 401 pages
Published August 5th 2014 by Viking Adult
Read: August 16 – 20, 2014
This is one of those books that I’ve been waiting for since about 30 minutes after I finished the previous book in the series — and at the same time, one I didn’t want to arrive, because that means I have to say good bye to Quentin, Brakebills, Fillory and the rest of the gang. The nods to Lewis’ The Last Battle were pretty obvious, but naturally, there was a lot more going on than that. Unlike Lewis, the book never really felt like the end of anything but a chapter in the lives of most of these characters, and that their lives went on beyond these pages (you know, those that survived). I really like that kind of finale — one which is definitely an end to the story, but one that the characters go on from, having adventures (however mundane those may be) that we don’t get to see.
It’s obvious straight away, that Quentin didn’t respond too well from the events of The Magician King all too well — but for the record, neither did Eliot. So at least that’s fair. We get Quentin’s story told to us in two timelines — first, in the present, and the other starts shortly after King. I’m sure there was a point to that, but it didn’t strike me as necessary (although I should add, now that I’ve typed this, I can actually start to appreciate why Grossman may have chosen this. Still, I’m sticking with not necessary). But it didn’t interfere with anything, either, so I’m not going to complain.
Upon his exile, Quentin ends up at Brakebills, looking for answers, looking for hope and ends up becoming an entry-level professor there. And he’s good at it, for the first time, really since his student days there, he seems content, he seems at home. You really start to think that he’s got a happy ending in a quiet life ahead of him. And you know that you’re wrong, if only because the book has a lot more pages in it — but also because you know Quentin. Still, it’s a nice oasis for both character and reader.
In the present, however, Quentin’s part of a magically powered team of thieves — by the time you get an explanation for how he ended up in this situation, with his new companion/disciple Plum, you almost don’t care. You’ve just accepted this reality, and really want to find out (as much as Plum and Quentin do) just what they’re after and how they can pull off their heist.
Part of their research requires a trip to Fillory’s Antarctica campus. Which I’d forgotten all about, much to my chagrin. Instead of traveling there as birds, they opt to travel as blue whales. A choice I just loved.
[Quentin]’d imagined that he’d get some kind of deluxe ocean-vision as part of his package of new whale-senses, but in fact he didn’t see much better than he had as a human. With his eyes on different sises of his head his binocular depth perception was shot, and having no neck, all he could do to change the view was roll his eyes around or steer his whole humongous body. Also, unnervingly, he didn’t seem to have any eyelids anymore. He couldn’t blink. The urge decreased over time, but it never completely went away.
The whole whale episode — all 3 pages and change of it — was so brilliant, that even if the rest of the book was a wreck, I’d be tempted to give it 5 stars. Your results may vary re: the whale sequence, but I can assume there’ll be something like that for you. There are lots of little moments like this in this book vying for a spot in your personal Top Ten Moments list — like, say, Eliot engaging in single-combat, or learning about the restorative power of bacon.
Meanwhile, back in Fillory, the world is ending. And, sadly, that’s not hyperbole. Enter The Last Battle parallels. This part of the book could’ve been doubled in length and I wouldn’t have blinked a bit. Eliot and Janet take off on a quest to see if it’s possible to stop the world ending — and if so, you know, to stop it.While they’re on this quest the thing that struck me most was how little we ever got to see of Fillory (and nearby lands and peoples), and how much more I wanted to see, so I really enjoyed that aspect of the story. There were some great moments for Janet in particular here. Eventually, as the world begins to end, a massive civil war erupts magical and non-magical creatures fighting against each other, alongside the humans. From Janet’s perspective we see much of this, including what happens when unicorns and centaurs enter the fray on opposing sides:
You only had to see a unicorn lay open the side of a centaur once, the ribcage flashing white when the ripped skin flopped down, to swear a mighty oath never to fuck with or even look at another unicorn again. I’m putting down the hearts and fluffy clouds and backing away slowly. Don’t want any trouble here. You can have all the rainbows.
Yet, as usual, as interesting, explosive or world-ending as the other story might be, if it didn’t involve Quentin, I just couldn’t care as much. The further into the story I got, I did get more invested in the non-Quentin story than I initially was — and it was epic enough, important enough that I should’ve been invested, but without him it wasn’t as compelling. Quentin was our entry point to this world (these worlds, rather), and he stayed the focal point. So even an actual pending apocalypse paled in comparison to Quentin as Brakebills professor. By the end of the book, this wasn’t as true as it was in the beginning, but it spent too much time being true for me to overlook it. Thankfully, shortly after that, all the storylines merge, the band gets back together (with some needed augmentation), and they finally get a solid answer about whether they can prevent the end of Fillory.
Ultimately, Quentin’s not the hero of the series, nor is Janet, or Eliot, or anyone else. It’s Grossman — his use of the characters, his use of — and exploitation of — fantasy tropes, his messing with fantasy tropes, his facility with language, metaphor, and humor is what makes this series stand out.
As with the other two books, Grossman’s word choice is this great, seamless mix of poetic, flowery, rich vocabulary (I occasionally had to look up words to make sure I was sussing out the context clues correctly) with non-ironic uses of things like “lulz” or “I heart you.” Somehow, he’s able to pull this off without the reader blinking — or even noticing it most of the time.
Grossman starts in right away puling the reader in with:
Quentin didn’t care. It was a bookstore, and he felt at home in bookstores, and he hadn’t had that feeling much lately. He was going to enjoy it. He pushed his way back through the racks of greeting cards and cat calendars, back to where the actual books were, his glasses steaming up and his coat dripping on the thin carpet. It didn’t matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home.
There’s not a reader in the world that doesn’t know that exact feeling, hasn’t had that experience. It’s sort of a magical moment before the plot begins. Then a few chapters later, he somehow supports and underlines this moment, while undercutting it with:
The lights were too bright, and there were too many TVs, but it was a bar, and that was another place, like bookstores, where Quentin felt at home. Drinks were a lot like books, really: it didn’t matter where you were, the contents of a vodka tonic were always more or less the same and you could count on them to take you away to somewhere better or at least make your present arrangements seem more manageable.
The tragic, inevitable, brilliant, and awe-inspiring climax was the way this saga had to end. It wasn’t the ending you wanted, but in retrospect, you totally you did want this ending. If that even makes sense. Grossman has given contemporary fantasy readers a real gift here in this series and I think it’ll be one that holds up pretty well to re-reading and the passing of years. I certainly look forward to testing that hypothesis. If you’ve read this far, and haven’t read The Magicians, go get started with that one, and I dare you not to plow through the rest.