The first time I read this book, I felt a little bit disappointed with it. I think it’s because it’s something of a disjointed experience; at times, not a lot happens, and at times the things that happen don’t really add up to much. That was true of the first book in the trilogy too, but that had a really strong underlying message, whereas the message here is a lot simpler: Quentin has figured out how to be okay, even in the face of losing everything. He’s got the hang of happiness, even when it’s a muted kind of thing pieced together out of the shards of a broken life. He’s done. The biscuit’s baked.
I appreciated it better on rereading. Quentin’s made a lot of bad choices, and some good ones, but even when he’s made good choices he’s often done it for poor reasons. The good that we do is still good even when we do it with questionable motives, but it’s refreshing to see him actually make hard choices for no reason other than his moral code, and the fact that he’s finally realised that being a hero doesn’t necessarily mean being the star of the show. In the process of letting go of everyone, he might just have figured out how to actually let them in.
It’s also interesting to see Quentin through the eyes of someone younger, to whom he’s a mentor figure. From her perspective, yes he’s kind of a fucked up person, but he’s trying to do something that matters and she’s excited to be a part of it. Because that’s another thing Quentin’s finally grasped: Magic doesn’t hand you purpose, but there’s a thousand good uses it can be put to, so when you’ve been handed this power and responsibility, what kind of difference are you going to decide to make to the world(s)?
The secondary cast got a lot more attention here than in the previous books, and I appreciated the growth. Plum, Quentin’s protégé, is of course new, but manages to squeeze some interesting backstory in, but what I really appreciated was the growth of Eliot and Janet from amusing but damaged lushes into fully realised people. Eliot has found his place, has found a responsibility to gladly shoulder, and it’s one that he’s willing to fight for, albeit in uniquely Eliot ways. Janet lets her icy façade drop for long enough to show us how a sojourn in the desert while Eliot and Quentin were busy saving the world broke and reforged her. It’s surprisingly touching, and it’s a rare instance where I don’t really mind a character serving as exposition fairy.
There are still some issues with the pacing. The flashbacks to Brakebills worked well for me despite narratively just serving as setup, because they show how Quentin has mastered the art of contentment in trying circumstances, but there was honestly far too much detail on the subsequent heist sequence given that we’re never going to see most of the characters from it again. The sudden switch to Fillory and what’s going on with Eliot and Janet is rather jarring as well, and it would have been better if the Fillory stuff had been interwoven with the Earth chapters earlier in the book, and been a bit more spread out.
The one big disappointment that remained for me on rereading was the handling of how Quentin and Alice’s story and Quentin’s loss came full circle. Firstly, I felt it undermined part of the point of the book, and indeed the entire trilogy, which is that there’s no one magical thing — including magic itself — which is going to provide you with happiness. Alice was one of the things that Quentin used to try to fill the holes in himself and in his life, and his loss of her represented the first point at which he started to grasp that lesson, although obviously it took other losses for him to complete that journey. The decision Grossman made about how to conclude that story arc really sapped some of the power from that message for me. Secondly, this storyline was definitely one of the worst victims of the disjointed pacing. In the haste to wrap it up and get back to the Fillory plot, it made magic, and niffins, and the gap between those and the material world feel mundane. This should have been a lengthier story of tentative rediscovery.
So it still has its flaws and I can’t claim to love it quite as much as the previous two books, but I do love it. Taken as a whole, this trilogy is a profound story of depression, escapism, grief, wonder, and adulthood, flavoured with some delicious dark humour. It will remain among my all-time favourites for many years to come.