But you could also think these three books are the story of Quentin, since most of the actual words are about him. But why would you? The thing about this Quentin fellow is he spends basically all three books accidentally and unhappily hopping in to and out of Fillory. He's a little brat about it, and everything else, mostly. He comes and goes so many times you'll lose track. He's a huge pinhead about his relationship with Alice. By the end of Book 2, he's finally sacking up and learning to not be a giant baby. But that’s a little late, honestly?
And his Fillory obsession! Jesus. Fillory sucks, in the same way that Narnia and France suck too when you get up close. Literally the only thing that recommends Fillory is that everything is magic there. Some of the animals can talk, and some can't. Why? Plus there's dwarves under everything, but you never see them. The kings and queens of Fillory, including Quentin, and less so, Eliot, our louche homosexual pal, and Janet, the super-bitchy bossy one, are seriously not ideal for the job.
Yes, it's a monarchy. What's worse than a monarchy? Oh, right, a false monarchy that’s actually ruled by two stupid god-sheep who are just phenomenal assholes.
But mostly it's Quentin. Who gives a damn about Quentin in the specific and Quentins in general? “Boys were so unstable that way, full of buggy, self-contradictory code, pathetically unoptimized,” our hero Julia thinks at one point, after sleeping with someone she actually likes and watching him go cold and shut down. They certainly are, if they refuse to get their shit together. And if they don't want to get their shit together, who would want them? If all three books are actually about Quentin finally finding a reasonably appropriate level of adolescent maturity by the age of 30, and that's not somehow remarkable, then, boy, are we ever in trouble.
* * *
It is queerly difficult to remember these books not so long after reading them. They evaporate, in a not unpleasing way, leaving a sense of having had a nice steak, or a decent massage. It's almost as if the books had a spell on them, leaving them incapable of being recalled. That’s partly the function of publishing over years as a trilogy.
How should we judge a trilogy? Let's say you get three magic questions, which is always the kind of dumb jerk thing that happens in a magical land. How about: Are these people still actually behaving like themselves—or at least like people—throughout? Am I satisfied? And, hmm: Is this world complete?
Trilogies have gotten a bad rap, and rightly so. The blockbusters in YA SF and fantasy suffered horribly having to perform throughout three books. Both Hunger Games and Divergent in particular went badly nuts in their third acts, all the plots squeaking like squeezeboxes, all the characters dripping blood and tears endlessly. Their heroes stopped being women and started being devices. (So much “torn between two lovers” garbage, too! Blecho!)
It's likely always been this way. “The reason people don't believe that I didn't plan a trilogy from the start is that fantasy now suffers from endemic trilogitis,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote about the time when it looked like her Earthsea series was going to be a trilogy. “Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is largely responsible for this epidemic.” The Earthsea books are useful to consider in context of the Magicians trilogy. They were published over the course of 31 years, and the first three are, largely or entirely, about a man. When the fourth book, Tehanu, came out, Le Guin later wrote in its afterword, “some reviewers and readers were disappointed. ... Where's the guy with the shining staff? Who's going to do the big magic? A little girl? Oh, come on. That's not a hero tale! … Some readers who identified with Ged as a male power figure thought I'd betrayed and degraded him in some sort of feminist spasm of revenge.”
Such a heroine, a woman of importance, just hadn't really existed yet in the marketplace. We live now in wealthy times of female heroes, particularly in trilogies. One thing they have in common is that, unlike Quentin, they all grow up pretty fast. They have to.
“When I was writing the story in 1969, I knew of no women heroes of heroic fantasy since those in the works of Ariosto and Tasso in the Renaissance. … The women warriors of current fantasy epics,” Le Guin wrote in an afterword of The Tombs of Atuan, “look less like women than like boys in women's bodies in men's armor.” Instead, Le Guin wouldn't play make-believe, and her women were sometimes vulnerable, including physically. She refused to write wish fulfillment, even the wish fulfillment many of us crave. This seems relevant to how many of us felt angry about Julia. I have seen dozens of Tumblrs about young women throwing Book 2 across the room, or at least writing of closing it quietly and dispiritedly. We wanted her to rage and triumph. Instead, she got raped, while Quentin got a fucking crown. Thanks, man.
Le Guin's beliefs have some children now. Kristin Cashore's wonderful Graceling Realm series, three books to date, is set in a small and rather medieval land, where all is as it should be except there are various stripes of mutants (as well as various familiar forms of gender-based roles and restrictions). Each of the three books is led by a woman: the first is a Graceling, a being magically imbued with a special talent; the second is a monster, who is attractive to the point of compulsion; the third is an ordinary girl queen. These are all real women, and these are emotional and strong and ultimately bizarre stories. In Laini Taylor's exquisite Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, the story blossoms perfectly, never rushed or forced, and the more extreme and strange it becomes, the more the humanity in it resonates. (Strange, you say? Why yes, it's about a cool girl at an art school in Prague who was raised by a chimera in another dimension whose job it is to collect teeth from the Earth for a war against the angels! Yeah, buddy.) Throughout the action and history and madness, she always remembers to tend to her hero's heart.
Real women are everywhere, even written by men: Scott Westerfeld's thoughtful and often hilarious Uglies trilogy-plus-one holds up throughout. Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember series is four books, although the third is a very frustrating prequel, but it has a thoughtful, inquisitive, and realistic lady hero.
Cassandra Clare’s quite popular and inventive Mortal Instruments series was supposed to be a trilogy and blew out into six books, and is also instructive to view in light of the Magicians books. Grossman's early unveiling of his story is so well-handled, as Quentin McJerkface blunders into a land of actual magic; in comparison you see the hasty machinations right in the opening of City of Bones, the first book in the Mortal Instruments, as A Supposedly Normal Girl is surprised to fall into the supernatural on literally Page 4. Who is she? Well, it doesn't matter, does it, because I guess she's just supposed to be you, young lady book-buyer, and you'll take what you can get. Oh no? Those days are over? Oh good.
* * *
The more you look at them all, the more you can see just how terrifying embarking on a trilogy must be. Every author must feel like a passenger landing a plane. There's plenty of literary wreckage all around. Those who stick the landing deserve applause.