The Magicians, The Magician King, and The Magician's Land together tell the story of the strange life of an overachieving Brooklyn high school student named Julia Wicker. (Yes? All agreed? Good.) Here we can at last straighten out Julia's experience through the first two books, kinkily though Lev Grossman tells it, acknowledging that readers might not wish to know yet the details of what happens to her in the third book before it comes into print on Tuesday.
Julia is dating a normal bro her senior year when suddenly she and her boyfriend's irritating nebbish best friend, Quentin Coldwater, who has a ridiculous crush on her, are spirited away to a magical academy. Literally, Brakebills is a magic college—the only one in North America. Julia fails the entrance examination, and somehow Quentin is accepted, and Julia's life goes off the rails. She's been ensorcelled to forget she was ever summoned, but it doesn't quite take. Although one of the pluses of being rejected from Brakebills is that they then jury-rig your admission to seven very good colleges, she forgets to go, and then forgets to bathe; she just can't shake that thing. She forages her way deep through the Internet on the trail of magic, stalking head shops and restaurant supply stores. Her parents freak. At 18, she gets stuffed in the nut hut for six weeks.
She moves out and becomes a temp, and finally, at last, she finds one fragment on the Internet that's really unreal. It's either magic, or she's finally cracked.
And so she sets her sights on Quentin, who is long missing. The only way to find Quentin is to stalk his ignorant parents, who've moved to some tacky suburb in Massachusetts. She waits a year and a half. He finally shows up on summer break, and she follows him to a cemetery. She tries everything, including dangling herself before his crush. And he shoots her down and takes off—although at least he confirms she's not crazy, that there really was a magical college, and that she really didn't get in.
Julia—or at least “the wreck of the good ship Julia”—goes home. Her parents are thrilled. She feels, at last, relief, and also the blunt edge of 450 milligrams of Wellbutrin b/w 30 milligrams of Lexapro. She reactivates her acceptance to Stanford. She also finds a kooky anonymous online group of 14 addled misfits, who protect themselves behind walls of tests and clues, and who become her all day, everyday chat-room pals. One day on one of her long recovery walks in her new and acceptable life, she encounters a numerical pattern series IRL that was part of a game they'd played online. It delivers her to a shabby house in Bed-Stuy, where suddenly she can smell magic, and then the madness is upon her again.
There she begins learning, and, outgrowing this shabby house of magic, she begins traveling house to house, from Buffalo to Key West, finding these locations by friendliness or via “the power of the bathroom handjob.” The quest leaves her emptier and emptier. At last, an advanced magician shows up and runs Julia through a test of all her spells, and then leaves her clues to get to a village in the south of France, where she finds 10 people, half of them her friends from online, who are, of course, magicians as well as geniuses and medicated depressives. She's upset, stunned, and gratified. Most of all, she's saved. They teach her everything they know, and then they add her to their quest: What is the “magical singularity”? What is the next level, what is beyond? The central mystery being: What is the nature of magic, and how much of it do we know? Is there always more and more powerful magic to be discovered? Or do you meet up with “inverse profundity,” in which it turns out that our magic is just a series of sad little power tools that a stronger race have accidentally left behind? The answer isn't, they’ve found, traveling nearer to the center of the Earth, or dreams, or the magnetic field, or space. All that is left to explore is religion.
Julia eventually gets on board, and they tromp the countryside digging up strange minor deities and a hermit and some critters. As they work, Julia begins to believe that underneath all the religious blah-blah of our world there actually is something, a guiding but local hand of a goddess, an actual hand of nature and the seasons, “a distant cousin of Diana or Cybele or Isis.” The hermit gives them an invocation. They prepare, wearing white flowing gowns: a crown of mistletoe, a silver bowl of rainwater, six animals for slaughter. Even as they begin, Julia realizes she doesn't actually care. All she wanted was a family of her own making, and here she'd found it at last! But the ceremony goes on, and, instead of this goddess, out from a candle pops a 12-foot tall man with a fox's head. Then the killings begin. Only two survive, and Julia is one. But does she? While the fox god rapes her, he gives her some power, but takes something more complicated—something she wasn't sure she had but definitely wouldn't have given up.
(The rape is the dodgiest event of the three books, it seems obvious to say. On the plus side [I guess?], it seemed to settle the question of whether we were reading a book for young adults or for actual adults. [“Am I a young adult author? Hell if I know,” Grossman wrote once.] As for the minus side … most everything else? Nobody may issue a blanket proclamation that says, Yes, this particular use and description of violence is kosher, except each of us for herself as a reader or writer. This is a jury that must forever be out. Some found the rape upsetting but not necessarily exploitative; after all, this is a series where someone gets his hands eaten off, so it's not out of left field. It is likely what it is meant to be: Horrifying, grotesque, unreal, real. And yet. [Really great analysis can be found here, here, and outragedly and wonderfully here.])
By chance, possibly, Julia then meets Quentin's friends Eliot and Janet, in, of all places, a high-end spa in Wyoming. They're attracted to her because she's obviously a hot goth mess, but then Eliot spies her doing magic—dark magic, a Karen Silkwood shower of magic, as you might imagine. They adopt her and spirit her out of the world, and Julia becomes a queen of Fillory, which is a magical other place, made famous by Narnia-esque children’s books on Earth, books stupid Quentin's been obsessed with his whole life; finding that Fillory existed was what rescued Quentin from his own life of depression. This and that and the other thing happens. All along Julia has been changing. She has stopped using contractions in her speech; she has also gone pretty fully interior and also really all the way goth on the exterior.
Unfortunately the magic button they once all used to hop worlds has gone to a new owner, and they learn that gateway between worlds is rather busted up. That was Julia's doing; she and her friends, by their summoning, have given notice to the greater pantheon beyond our world that humans have been stealing magic. They interrogate a dragon in Venice’s Grand Canal, who actually sort of usefully explains some things: “The old gods are returning,” and “the first door is still open.” They find that first door and float through to the other side, where they have missed most of a quest to find seven golden keys, but finally do find them, after much ardor and barter. The dragons save magic! More importantly, it turns out this goddess does exist, and she transforms Julia into something divine. She ends up whole, and also important. Her suffering has meaning. Does yours? I'm not sure about mine.
* * *
You might also think of these books as the story of Alice, who comes to Brakebills with Quentin; they slowly become each others' first loves. She spends seven years traveling through space and time as a blue flaming creature of magical rage.
Or you could think of these books as the story of lands and magic themselves—after all Julia and her friends, in performing that first summoning of a god in thousands of years, have attracted the notice of those operating at the next level, who then break the pathways between the worlds and possibly even the world of Fillory itself.
It's definitely not the story of big queen Eliot, though. (Though at least he sort of barely kinda gets to have sex once, in a scene nicked from Proust, no less.) That story wouldn't be very marketable, would it?