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Literature / The Magicians

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The Magicians is the first in a trilogy of Urban Fantasy novels by Lev Grossman.

Quentin Coldwater probably wasn't expecting much more from his day than an entrance interview to Princeton and an awful lot of boredom and amateur magic tricks, with perhaps a few daydreams about the world of Fillory, a magical kingdom from the books he read as a child. However, things take a turn for the strange when his interviewer turns up dead, and one of the paramedics at the scene decides to hand over some of the deceased's belongings to Quentin; this leads him quite abruptly onto the grounds of the Wizarding School Brakebills, which, after an especially arduous examination, accepts him as a student. After five long years at Brakebills, our hero drifts in Manhattan as a fully-fledged magician with far too much time on his hands... up until he discovers that Fillory, the world he always dreamed of visiting, is very real — and within reach.


The sequel, The Magician King, focuses on Quentin as king of Fillory along with three characters from the previous book, and on a quest he undertakes for seemingly no reason other than to defeat his own ennui, but quickly turns into something a great deal more serious. This is alternated with the story of Julia's own path of magic after parting ways with Quentin, intersecting at various points with the plot of the first novel.

A third novel, The Magician's Land, was published in summer 2014. Here, fresh from returning home and getting into hot water with the Brakebills faculty, Quentin finds himself recruited for a magical heist mission... and stumbling one of Fillory's deepest, darkest secrets in the process - all while his fellow magicians try to stop a cataclysm that threatens all of Fillory.


A graphic novel, The Magicians: Alice's Story, was published in 2019, and charts the course of Quentin's friend and lover, Alice, before, during and after her time at Brakebills. The same year, a series of comic books titled The Magicians: New Class was released, featuring a class of hedge magicians being accepted into Brakebills in order to build bridges between "legitimate" magicians and the underground community of hedge magicians - and the chaos that ensues as a result.

The trilogy was adapted as a TV series on Syfy, which premiered December 16, 2015.

The Magicians Provides Examples Of:

  • Aliens Speaking English: It's never questioned why the inhabitants of Fillory speak perfect English.
  • Alliterative Name: Alder Acorn Agnes Allison-fragrant-timber, Quentin's centaur doctor.
  • Alliterative Title: The Fillory series, which is also called the Fillory and Further series: Book 1: The World in the Walls, Book 3: The Flying Forest, and Book 4: The Secret Sea.
  • And I Must Scream: A class gets magically paralyzed by a yet-unfamiliar villain for a while. This trope especially applies to the girl he eats alive.
  • Anti-Hero: Quentin, a well-meaning idiot defined mainly by his longing for purpose and his growing wellspring of selfishness; often, his attempts at heroism end up getting people hurt.
  • Artistic License – Military: It's stated that one of the students was the son of a five-star general. The United States Army hasn't promoted anybody to that rank since 1950, and the last one (Omar Bradley) died in 1981, and though the setting abides by the rule of Like Reality, Unless Noted, there's no indication that American military history is any different than the real world.
  • Baleful Polymorph: Brakebills students in their fourth year are involuntarily transformed into geese so that they can make the long and harsh journey to Brakebills' Antarctic campus.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Leonardo da Vinci, John Dee, Nostradamus, Roger Bacon and Isaac Newton were all magicians but low level ones who weren't able to keep within the Masquerade.
  • Bigger on the Inside: Many magical buildings are larger on the inside, such as the cottage that the Physical Kids hang out in. Quentin's copy of A History Of Magic appears quite slim from the outside but actually has 1,832 pages.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Alice is dead, Quentin is traumatized, and Fillory is no better than the real world... but it seems there may be hope, for Quentin personally and for Fillory's national future, when Quentin and his friends decide to return and take the throne.
  • Broken Ace: Alice.
  • Canada, Eh?: Near the beginning of the first book, two people taking the test are said to have come from 'the same Inuit reservation in Saskatchewan. There are no Inuit reservations. And if there were, they wouldn't be in Saskatchewan. Maybe it's an all-magician Inuit reservation that's hidden from muggles by the masquerade, or maybe it's just Quentin not understanding what he's hearing.
  • Career-Revealing Trait: Magic is performed through extremely complex gestures. Consequently, during his period of self-imposed exile in the real world, Quentin instantly recognizes a fellow Brakebills alumnus by the overdeveloped musculature of her hands and fingers.
  • Celebrity Paradox: A contradictory example surrounding C.S. Lewis and Christopher Plover. Word of God says here that in the Magiciansverse, C.S. Lewis was never born. If he had he and Christopher Plover would have collapsed into each other and formed a space-time singularity. But Plover's defictionalised real life website says that he's one of the founders of the modern English fantasy tradition along with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkein.
  • Chekhov's Gift: Subverted. A river nymph gives Quentin a silver horn, apparently for use in "break-glass-in-case-of-emergency" situations. Actually, it summons the Big Bad into territory he couldn't previously reach.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The cacodemons given to the students upon graduating, which come in very handy when pitted against dangers in Fillory. Quentin uses his to buy Alice enough time to transform into Niffin and kill the Beast.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Subverted. The disciplines seem to be this, but they never really amount to much in the first book. We're only ever told what Penny's and Alice's are, and only Penny's seems to come in useful. This is somewhat justified in story, as it's basically said that the theory behind dividing students into disciplines is weak, and it often means very little beyond a student being slightly better than another student at some particular spells. Played straight in the final books when we finally find out Quentin's discipline is: fixing things - and it's the one thing that ends up saving the day.
  • Crossover: Word of God says that the Neitherlands was either built over The Wood Between the Worlds from The Chronicles of Narnia or that the woods will eventually grow over The Neitherlands. In the second book Josh says he visited a world in the multiverse that was inhabited by Teletubbies. In this story Julia fights Kull.
  • Country Matters:
    • An aggrieved Alice calls Janet a cunt after Janet gives away the story of how Charlie, Alice's brother, turned into a Niffin:
    “That’s what she wants everybody to think! So you won’t realize what a howling cunt she is!"
    • The Beast calls the Watcherwoman a cunt regarding the clock-trees:
    "That bloody cunt of a Watcherwoman is still at it, with her damned clock-trees."
  • Crippling the Competition: Just prior to the final battle, the Beast tips the odds a little further in his favour by biting off Penny's hands before the fighting starts. As spells are dependent on complex gestures, this leaves the Physical Kids' most experienced battle-magician out of the fight - a fact that the Beast openly gloats about.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Discussed.
    [Quentin] did the trick with the nickel in his pocket again.
    "Are you playing with your wang, Quentin?" James asked.
    Quentin blushed.
    "Are you playing with your wang."
    "Nothing to be ashamed of." James clapped him on the shoulder. "Clears the mind."
  • Deconstruction: Can be seen as a deconstruction of the Harry Potter series, in that it explores the realities of what an elitist magical academy might be like, as well as the effects on our protagonist, Quentin. At some points it also manages to make magic seem well, magical again, for example when Professor Myakovsky reverses entropy as a class demonstration, or Quentin's first piece of magic. Quentin can also be seen as a deconstruction of the sort of person who wishes he could enter a fantasy world, given that he ends up dissatisfied with just about everywhere he goes — to the point that Alice eventually calls him on it.
    • The realm of Fillory may also be a deconstruction of Narnia, or at least the idea of a magical world to escape to, as it is pointed out repeatedly that their world is not a plaything.
  • Defictionalization: Christopher Plover and Brakebills both have their own websites.
    • Interesting in-universe example: Battle Magic spells like magic missile and fireball are actually cribbed from Dungeons & Dragons in-universe; the magicians, being nerds, have played the game and find the ideas useful.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life:
    • Quentin, who ends up dissatisfied with every single purpose he applies himself to and ultimately finds himself hunting for the next big thing he can set his mind do.
    • Julia also fits this in the second book, though her route is outside of the magical mainstream: she desperately wants to learn magic at first and won't be satisfied with knowing that she's smart enough to do it. Finally subverted in her final days with the FTB, when she realizes she has everything she wants and doesn't need to join her friends in hunting for bigger stakes. Tragically, it's too late to stop by then.
    • Alice's parents provide a rather dark example, especially given what Quentin is looking for. Successful adult magicians, they can use magic to obtain anything they want immediately - leaving them Nothing Left to Do but Die.
      ''You don't have to, Q. This is what you don't understand! ... It's a wasteland out there. Out here. You can do nothing or anything or everything, and none of it matters. You have to find something to really care about to keep from running totally off the rails."
  • Developing Doomed Characters: The first half of the first book is about the eponymous Magicians' time in magic school. While interesting in its own right, and important in that it sets up the characters, who are very well developed and realistically drawn, the plot doesn't really pick up motion until Penny shows up with the Button. Also, as a whole the group isn't exactly overflowing with the most admirable or heroic qualities.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: After punching out one of the apparently all-powerful guardians of Fillory, the Beast provides an explanation.
    "It's a funny thing about the old gods. You think that just because they're old, they must be difficult to kill. But when the fighting starts, they go down just like anybody else. They're not stronger, they're just older."
  • Dungeon Crawling: What they do in Ember's Tomb. Dint and Fen say they've been to a hundred places like it.
  • Education Through Pyrotechnics: Or education through turning people into animals. Whatever works.
  • Elite School Means Elite Brain: Brakebills is considered the best Wizarding School in North America—and also the most exclusive. Because working magic requires incredible intelligence and a level of focus bordering on insanity, you need to be an intellectual prodigy just to be considered for enrollment, and out of an entire class of potential students, only a handful ever pass the notoriously-difficult entrance exam—the rest having their memories of magic erased, no excuses, no second chances. For this reason, Brakebills students are considered the best and brightest of all magicians in the settings. By contrast, hedge magicians who learned their skills from non-official sources are treated as dunces who earned their skills at a 7-11.
  • Exclusive Clique Clubhouse: Students at Brakebills are divided into magical specialties (AKA Disciplines) and each group has their own exclusive clubhouse, most of them unseen over the course of the series. The Healers reside in the infirmary, the Knowledge students are situated in the attic of the school library, the Naturals live in a tree house somewhere in the surrounding forest, the Illusionists have a floating castle that can only be found by members of the clique, and so on. After his discipline is found to be impossible to determine, Quentin ends up getting sorted alongside Alice into the Physical Kids - practitioners of messy, physics-based magic - and find themselves billeted in a handsome cottage with wine, gourmet cooking and an awful lot of hijinks.
  • Expy: As the Fillory and Further books are an in-universe stand-in for the Chronicles of Narnia, many of the characters in them are parodies of Narnia's most famous characters.
    • The rams, Ember and Umber, stand in for Aslan.
    • The Chatwin children are expies for the Pevensies; in particular, Martin becomes the recognized stand-in for Peter as both are the eldest siblings and both become the High Kings of their respective fantasy realms. Meanwhile, Fiona Chatwin remains the only member of the family to forget about Fillory and move on with her life, making her a stand-in for Susan.
    • Likewise, the Watcherwoman is one for the White Witch. Up until Quentin finally meets her, whereupon she's revealed to be an expy of Lucy Pevensie.
  • Expy Coexistence. The series is a satire on both Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia, and the Potter books are occasionally mentioned by the characters, though the Narnia books apparently don't exist in this universe, probably because the similarities to Fillory are just too close.
  • Extradimensional Emergency Exit: Being a parody of The Chronicles Of Narnia, the Fillory and Further series features a moment where Martin Chatwin first ventures into the Magical Land of Fillory by stepping through the door of a grandfather clock. Later, Quentin discovers that the adventures of the Chatwin children were actually real - and that Martin might not have entered the clock out of pure curiosity: he was being molested by Christopher Plover at the time, and Jane Chatwin speculates that he only entered the clock in a desperate attempt to escape Plover's advances.
  • Flight: One of the powers that Quentin and the other Physical Kids have mastered by the end of the book, though it's difficult to maintain and takes a lot of energy.
  • Fireballs: One of the first battle spells our heroes learn is fireball, directly based off a Dungeons and Dragons spell.
  • Five-Man Band: The Physical Kids:
    • The Leader: Janet (Type III, takes the lead when they have to form a Welters team, rather bossy, and despite her lesser qualities she's also probably the most loyal to the group as a whole)
    • The Lancer: Eliot (attached to the hip with Janet, more laid back but wields the authority of "cool").
    • The Smart Guy: Alice (comes to school already knowing several advanced incantations, extremely studious).
    • The Big Guy: Josh (large in size, and capable of extremely powerful magic... when he actually manages to cast a spell that is).
    • The Chick: Quentin (oblivious to any possible negative tension within the group, the only one to really believe in magic according to Alice).
  • From Bad to Worse: At the end of the first book, Quentin finally gets a solid reason to be a woobie and suffers an extended Heroic BSoD after Alice dies fighting the Beast. She is gone before he can tell her what he's realized... that he really loves her.
  • Functional Magic: Magic is highly technical and rules-based. Magicians cast spells by saying a string of words (many of them in obscure, dead languages) and performing a set of complex Magical Gestures. New magicians must also memorize huge books full of Circumstances that change how a spell works, from the phase of the moon to the weather.
  • Funny Bruce Lee Noises: Invoked by Quentin to knock open the door to the Physical Kids' cottage.
  • Golem: In her final fight with The Beast/Martin Chatwin, Alice turns the sand in the room into a glass golem.
  • Giving Radio to the Romans: Discussed. the Physical Kids all agree it would be a bad idea to introduce guns to Fillory Janet brings one anyway, and ends up shooting her way out of danger.
  • Hitler's Time Travel Exemption Act: Not Hitler himself, but Martin Chatwin. There's apparently no time line where he does not go to Fillory. Possibly justified, on the grounds that Jane Chatwin was only given the time-travel watch because of Martin's rise to power in Fillory. Therefore, the range of universes she could create would be limited to ones in which Martin went to Fillory and made it possible for her to time travel in the first place. If this analysis is correct, it would effectively be a case of Stephen Hawking's "cosmic censor" stepping in to prevent a Grandfather Paradox from arising.
  • Hot Witch: Alice and Anaïs are both known for their good looks and mastery of magic. Also "the paramedic," AKA Jane Chatwin.
  • Hufflepuff House:
    • There are many other schools of magic throughout the world, but only one student from one of them appears more than once.
    • Similarly, the other Disciplines of magic: the only one formally introduced is Physical Magic. The others — Nature, Illusion, Healing, Psychic, Knowledge, etc. — are only given a few fleeting but tantalizing references, though Illusion is given more focus in in The Magician's Land.
  • Incomprehensible Entrance Exam: Potential students at Brakebills are given a borderline-Daliesque entrance exam to prove if they have what it takes to wield magic. Among other things, examinees can be transported to Brakebills without warning and without even knowing that magic exists; they can be challenged to guess what's on the other side of a playing card, to draw a rabbit that moves as they try to finish drawing it, to describe how they would stop the exam paper from escaping, and even to invent a new language, detail its history, and translate a passage from The Tempest into the language and back. Following the written portion, they are given a number of seemingly nonsensical tasks, including map-drawing, conjuring tricks, blitz chess and knot-unraveling, before entrants are finally provoked into unveiling their magical powers. Though this seems eccentric, it's actually very good at identifying students with the intelligence, obsession and aptitudes necessary for spellcasting. However, Brakebills accepts only the best, and anyone who fails the exam for any reason will have their memories of the college erased... and out of a huge class of potential students, only two are accepted.
  • Interdimensional Travel Device: The Button(s) act as this, allowing the user to transport themselves into the Neitherlands, allowing them access to an interdimensional Portal Network.
  • It Only Works Once: The Cacodemon tattoo, which contains exactly one demon of the same name; once you release it, it will tackle whatever's threatening you, but it can't be sealed back into place. However, after the Cacodemon is released, nothing says you can't put another demon in it's place...
  • I Wish It Were Real: Quentin daydreams about Fillory turning out to be real. It eventually does, and Quentin starts learning to be careful what he wishes for.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Prospective students who fail the Brakebills entrance exam have their memory of the encounter erased. However, this fails in the case of Julia, which nearly ruins her life.
  • Left-Justified Fantasy Map: Found in the front of the book.
  • Like Reality, Unless Noted: Word of God says here that everything (including Harry Potter books) that exists in real life exists in the Magiciansverse apart from The Chronicles of Narnia and C. S. Lewis which are replaced by "Fillory and Further" and Christopher Plover.
  • Literal Transformative Experience: During the visit to Brakebills' southern campus, fourth-year students are taught how to transform into arctic foxes; as it turns out, this is another part of the Training from Hell, this one ensuring that the students are humiliated by the end result of combining animal instincts with several months without sex. However, the experience encourages Quentin and Alice to take their relationship to the next level and become lovers. For good measure, Alice also experiences another spike in confidence, driving her to refuse the offered magical ingredients from Mayakovsky and tackle the Ultimate Final Exam - walking naked to the South Pole with only her magic to defend her - entirely on her own; in the comic, she jokingly attributes it to having a few fox traits left over from the transformation.
  • Made of Iron:
    • According to Dean Fogg, cacodemons have skin like iron and may actually be made from iron, hence why they're tough enough to be used as emergency weapons.
    • In Fillory, they actually fight a giant made from red hot iron. Josh manages to defeat him by summoning a miniature black hole to suck him in.
  • Magic A Is Magic A: Magic seems to follow its own internal rules, some of which the protagonists and magical society at large seem to know, and some that they don't, for example the "turtles all the way down" speech Quentin and his friends get at the start of their first class. But if you know the spell you're using and the Circumstances where you are,and preform the spell correctly then you'll get a predictable result— the Circumstances are so idiosyncratic that the students have to basically be imprisoned in Antarctica for a term repeating spells until they internalise some of the "grammar" of magic.
  • Magic Is Evil: Emily Greenstreet firmly believes this, due to a number of events that were mainly her fault. Quentin also briefly holds shades of this belief until Emily blames Alice's death on magic as well and congratulates him on leaving magic behind.
  • Magic Misfire: Casting advanced spells when upset will generally result in the caster transforming into a creature of pure magic (called a niffin), with lethal results (both for the caster and for anyone in the way).
  • Magicians Are Wizards: Quentin accidentally does real magic while performing sleight-of-hand coin tricks, which is what initially attracts the attention of Brakebills. It is also mentioned that some hedge wizards make a living as stage magicians.
  • Magical Land: Fillory, an unearthly realm of fantasy creatures and adventure modelled off Narnia. Unsurprisingly, it operates on Narnia Time.
  • Magical Native American: Professor Foxtree, who is specifically noted to be of Native American descent.
  • Magic Versus Science: Quentin and his friends are urged at the beginning to think of their studies as a purely practical course with a minimum of theory. Apparently many magicians have tried and failed to unearth the roots of magic. But they do have an understanding of the Circumstances, Alice and Penny manage to cobble together offensive spells from books, and in a conversation Alice says that spells demonstrably pull energy from the environment to work, though how or at what distance isn't specified. The Physical discipline of magic, which Quentin and his friends are in, specializes in messy practical magic that is based off of Physics. So it's unclear how much understanding they have, but it seems like a lot of work was done to get that understanding and work is still being done to expand it, and it's mentioned that some of the new magical research being done involves using recent scientific discoveries. Science Is Wrong is averted, it's more that figuring out magic seems to be a lot harder than gravity. It also has the EMP effect, given that Brakebills has only one games console hidden in a closet and it switches off if anyone casts a spell nearby.
  • Magic Wand: Dint uses one. Almost nobody at Brakebills does except as a particularly embarrassing crutch for magical power. The only witnessed uses outside Fillory are in first year, in which Surrendra draws invisible sigils in the air with a willow wand as part of a spell to slice a marble in half, and as part of an extremely mundane spell used for making shapes from fire with the aid of specially-prepared wands.
  • Magocracy: The Magician's Court which punishes magical criminals is mentioned.
  • Make a Wish: When Quentin finds the Questing Beast, he is granted three wishes, though there are apparently limits to what he can wish for.
  • Masculine Girl, Feminine Boy: Janet and Eliot. She's the blunt, caustic, ambitious, and promiscuous girl to his vain, lazy, emotionally reserved, and... equally promiscuous boy. For all their differences, they're as similar as they are unalike and pretty much best friends.
  • Masquerade: The school's mysterious nature is hidden by magic, as are many other magical locations, and though allowing close relatives and spouses into the Masquerade is ultimately revealed to be permissible, actually breaking the Masquerade on any grand scale is obviously considered a big no-no.
  • Master of Illusion: The discipline of Illusion Magic is all about this. Though only addressed in passing, the Brakebills Illusionists are skilled enough to make sure that nobody really knows where they gather.
  • Medieval Stasis: Fillory, which remains socially and technologically trapped in the Middle Ages despite all the time that passes over the course of the Fillory and Further books and the main narrative.
  • Mega Neko: A giant cat is one of the many monsters that attacked the gang in Umber's Tomb.
  • Motivational Lie: As Alice uses a psionic magnifying glass to burn through the door to the Physical Kids' house (an unofficial entry exam), Quentin watches her progress for her and exaggerates how close she is to the end.
  • Moving Beyond Bereavement: Quentin spends the last few chapters of the story grieving for Alice, who was forced to transform herself into a Niffin and is now effectively dead; and after two failed attempts to undo the death, he begins avoiding reality in order to cope. Giving up magic in favour of Self-Imposed Exile in New York, he uses the Brakebills old boys' network in order to get a job with no actual work attached, and spends his days wasting time; his denial is so extreme that he actually believes himself more mature for taking this step... until he meets Emily Greenstreet, who is even more locked in denial then he is. Realizing that he's just wallowing in self-indulgence and self-pity instead of actually making any effort to move on, Quentin eventually resolves to take responsibility for the mistakes he's made - namely by taking up magic again and helping his friends put Fillory back on an even keel. By the second book, he still misses Alice, but he's moved on enough to pursue another adventure and even get another girlfriend.
  • Muggles: Most people simply don't have the particular aptitude for magic: either they're not intelligent enough, they don't have the capacity for spellcasting, they don't have the sheer obsessive desire to pursue their goals, or they simply weren't able to pass the entrance exam. Although a childhood crush of Quentin's fails the exam for Brakebills, she becomes a hedge witch.
  • Naked Nutter:
    • Inverted during the Fourth Year, in which getting naked seems to induce insanity: at the end of the Training from Hell in Antarctica, the Ultimate Final Exam features the student magicians being charged with walking to the South Pole - naked, with only their magic to protect them. By now, everyone's been hit with Polar Madness to at least some degree, and the process of wandering naked through the ice with no company nearly reduces Quentin to a barely-sane automaton - to the point that he ends up falling into a crevasse at one stage and barely even notices.
    • Niffins are driven insane by their transformation from human to magical energy, and in both the books and the comics, are commonly depicted as being composed of blue flame and stark naked.
  • Narnia Time: The Neitherlands and Fillory, both of which are desynchronized with Earth's timeline.
  • Nightmare of Normality: Because the study of magic is so intensive, the Brakebills faculty take pains to weed out anyone who doesn't live up to the college's high standards via a ridiculously difficult entrance exam: those who fail have all memory of Brakebills and what little knowledge they have of magic expunged, before being sent on their way.
  • Non Sequitur Environment: Early in the book, Quentin pursues a loose page from a manuscript into a hedge in New York during the autumn - only to find himself emerging in the idyllic Brakebills campus, in what appears to be the middle of summer. It's later discovered that most prospective students arrive in similar ways regardless of their environment; something always gets their attention and lures them into an invisible portal.
  • Noodle Incident: Quentin notices that all fourth-year students vanish from campus once a year, coming back months later refusing to talk about what happened. He finds out in his own fourth year, and has a similar reaction when he comes back to campus. As it turns out, the fourth year is spent at Brakebills' southern campus, giving a Training from Hell in the depths of Antarctica.
  • One-Hour Work Week: Magicians that leave the magical world tend to find employment in businesses that are enchanted to disguise the fact that none of them actually do anything. Emily Greenstreet is one of these types, as is Quentin at the end of the novel — before his friends invite him back to Fillory.
  • Our Demons Are Different: Cacodemons are imprisoned in a tattoo on the magician's back the night before they leave Brakebills. They can be released once using magic words and will try to kill whatever is in front of the magician.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: Christian magicians are extremely rare, Richard is an exception.
  • Polar Madness: Crops up during the Fourth Year at Brakebills: as this is the semester when student magicians are required to truly internalize what they've learned so far, they're sent to the secondary campus in Antarctica for a Training from Hell at the hands of Professor Mayakovsky. Worse still, students are immediately rendered mute so they won't be distracted. Over the next few months, the ceaseless workload, humiliating tricks, lack of interaction, and the overwhelming monotony of the landscape gradually wear on the sanity of the young magicians: Quentin finds himself hallucinating at several points, and witnesses other students who've gotten so desperate for human contact that they've started fucking each other in public.
  • Portal Crossroad World: The City the button teleports to, which contains an infinite number of PortalPools, in the form of fountains.
  • Posthuman Nudism: Magicians who blunder powerful spells run the risk of suffering a spectacular Superpower Meltdown that transforms them into a monstrous, all-powerful being of pure magic known as a Niffin. Beyond sanity and all comprehension of human nature, Niffins wear nothing whatsoever, the better to emphasize their bodies of glowing blue energy - aptly demonstrated in the finale of the first book, when Alice willingly transforms herself into a Niffin in order to defeat the Beast.
  • Reed Richards Is Useless: Averted; after leaving Brakebills, some adult magicians promote the success of humanitarian causes or prop the balance in failing ecosystems.
  • Sanity Slippage: Students attending Brakebills' Antarctic campus tend to go a little bit crazy due to the magical restrictions on speech, to the point that Quentin actually begins to hallucinate.
  • Self-Imposed Exile: Towards the end, Quentin Coldwater exiles himself to the Muggle world in the aftermath of his foolhardy journey to Fillory which resulted in the death of his lover, Alice. It's not much of a penance considering that he quickly descends into yet another life of sloth and self-indulgence in order to escape from his guilt, and his arrogance returns once he starts thinking himself more mature for abandoning magic, so it's really just an extension of his earlier self-pity. After meeting fellow exile Emily Greenstreet and witnessing the depths of denial the two of them are descending to, he gradually realizes that he isn't becoming a better person at all, and abandons exile in favor of returning to the magical lifestyle with his friends.
  • Shapeshifter Baggage: At Brakebills South, Quentin learns how to turn into various animals and finds out that much of the trick is shedding, storing and restoring the difference in body mass.
  • Shout-Out: Deserves its own page
  • Straw Character: Richard and Ember, though not entirely antagonistic or useless characters, both take this role semi-frequently in order to allow Quentin to shoot down ideas about religion and philosophy that the author does not espouse. Amusingly enough, Richard is ultimately revealed to be exactly right in his argument - he was just aiming too low.
  • Sufficiently Analyzed Magic: The method of teaching magic fits this to a T. The analysis is so single-minded that only the most intelligent and obsessed candidates can even manifest the simplest magic consistently.
  • Summon Magic: A Fiery Salamander is summoned during a Welters match; at the end of Quentin's time at Brakebills, Dean Fogg summons cacodemons this way.
  • Supernatural Martial Arts:
    • Fen's martial art "inc aga" was a hybrid technique of martial arts and highly specialised spellcasting style.
    • A side effect of Fergus's Spectral Armory is that it gives the castor gives knowledge of martial arts while it's in effect.
  • Teen Genius: A requirement to attend Brakebills, but Alice stands out even more than most.
  • Telepathy: Apparently the main purpose of the Psychic discipline.
  • This Loser Is You: Do you enjoy escapist fantasy? Ever long for adventure, magic, and whimsy? Then you must have a lot of issues—in fact you might just be a depressive malcontent at odds with just about anywhere you end up—at least if you're similar to the protagonist of this book.
  • Three-Way Sex: Quentin, Janet and Eliot have a threesome while drunk at a party. Alice later has sex with Penny in revenge after she finds this out.
  • Time Stands Still: When The Beast first appears, he stops time for everyone in the classroom but him; unfortunately, the students are still very much aware of the passage of time.
  • Took a Level in Badass:
    • Quentin initially appears to be a wishy-washy fantasist with no real stomach for danger... right up until he walks naked to the South Pole. Turns out he was one of the few students who were willing to do this, and therefore one of the few to earn Mayakovsky's hard-won respect.
    • Alice gradually becomes more confident and outgoing, becoming more open to speaking out against her friends when they do wrong. She even joins Quentin in her own naked Antarctic walk. Her upward progression reaches its peak when she finally fights Martin Chatwin.
  • Two Guys and a Girl: The initial setup with Quentin, Julia, and James. Quentin, Alice, and Penny may be considered this trope as well.
  • Two-Part Trilogy: Word of God says that The Magicians was never meant to have any sequels but then he imagined Quentin having a The Voyage of the Dawn Treader style adventure on Fillory's seas which inspired him to write two more books.
  • Ultimate Final Exam: The immensely-challenging fourth year at Brakebills concludes with the student magicians being made to walk from Brakebills' southern campus to the South Pole - naked, with only their magic to protect them from the elements, point them in the right direction, and keep them from starving to death. And at the end, it turns out that only Quentin and Alice actually went through with it. The others refused the challenge with no adverse consequences, though it's indicated that only the participants of this test were able to truly earn Mayakovsky's hard-won respect.
  • Volatile Second Tier Position: As it turns out, the most exhausting point during Quentin's time at Brakebills isn't the fifth and final year, but the fourth. Here, the usual trappings of lectures, exams, study and relaxation are stripped away in favor of a full-blown Training from Hell, and the fact that they're placed under the care of a teacher that may actually cross the line into outright villainy doesn't help. All told, this is the year that truly establishes if the students are capable of the incredible.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting:
    • During their time at Brakebills South, Quentin and the other fourth-years learn how to transform into polar bears and arctic foxes; apparently, some shapes can be assumed spontaneously, but other forms require specific ingredients for the transition to work - like goose fat or whalebone. Unfortunately, The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body, resulting in much awkwardness when they return to human form.
    • Later on, Alice shapeshifts into many different forms during the battle with Martin Chatwin, including that of a lion, a giant scorpion, and a dragon.
  • Wacky College
  • Wainscot Society: For the most part, magical society tries to keep itself hidden from the world of normal people... with varying levels of success.
  • Weird Moon: Fillory's is an actual crescent shape that eclipses the sun each midday.
  • Well-Trained, but Inexperienced: By the midway point, the Physical Kids have completed the mind-pummeling coursework at Brakebills, polished off a year of Training from Hell in Antarctica, have graduated, and are fully trained magicians - for all intents and purposes, minor reality warpers. And in their first battle in Fillory, they're quickly reduced to a terrified, confused, shambolic mess because none of them have any combat experience. It takes several battles before any of them can effectively apply their skills to combat, and Quentin doesn't become remotely useful until the second book in the series. Worse still, they're also pretty easy to outsmart, given that they haven't had to apply their intellectual gifts to anything serious in months: the Beast is able to fool them into serving as his MacGuffin Delivery Service, and would have ended up dooming Fillory if Alice hadn't took the fight to him.
  • Wizard Duel: Largely averted, particularly in the case of Quentin and Penny's first punch-up. According to Gretchen, it's believed that Welters was created as a substitute to dueling, as students kept killing each other. Meanwhile, Battle Magic such as fireballs and magic missiles are illegal and cannot be taught on Brakebills campus for this very reason.
  • Wizarding School: Brakebills, a magical university. It's mentioned that there are others in other countries. The hedge witch safe houses in the sequel also count.
  • Wizard Needs Food Badly: Cited, verbatim, by Josh after Quentin arrives back at Brakebills from Antarctica.
  • Wizards from Outer Space: One of the careers for an adult magician to choose is to live in Earth's orbit protecting the world from asteroids, cosmic radiation and solar flares.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Most of the young magicians think that visiting Fillory means they're in a children's fantasy story. Accepting a quest from a stranger should be safe and fun, right?

The sequel has examples of:

  • Ascended to a Higher Plane of Existence: At the end of the book Bingle, Abigail the sloth, and Julia journey to the flip side of Fillory, and as yet to be created world, which is said to be an improved upon version of Fillory, in the same way that Fillory is an improved upon version of Earth.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: In the final chapter of Julia's flashbacks, the Free Trader Beowulf Group try to summon a god as part of their ongoing attempt to become gods themselves. Unfortunately, the god that answered kills all but two of them, before giving one of the survivors (Julia) exactly what the group wanted—by raping her.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Julia finally recovers from her trauma and becomes a dryad, allowing her Bingle, and Abigail the sloth to descend into the Far Side, a new version of Fillory in the process of being created. Unfortunately, Quentin is not allowed to go with them because he's already used his passport to travel to the Underworld... and he also gets kicked out of Fillory by Ember because he took the blame for Julia's part in unwittingly triggering the apocalypse. Doubly galling Josh and Poppy (the girl Quentin has been sleeping with) decide to stay in Fillory as king and queen now that Quentin and Julia are leaving. On the upside, Quentin is given a magic button that will take him to any world except Fillory... and instead of feeling depressed at losing his utopia, for the first time, he feels genuine optimism and hope for the future.
  • Clarke's Third Law: Referenced by Penny and Free Trader Beowulf when they say that the power of gods wouldn't be any different to a really powerful magician's.
  • Double Standard: Rape, Divine on Mortal: Subverted when Julia offers herself to Reynard the Fox to save her friends. She meant she offered to die in their place... he interpreted it in a different way.
  • [Dropped a Bridge on Him: The sullen Benedict appears to be gearing up to become a hero after a year of questing and training with a master swordsman. However, just when it looks like he's going to fight his first proper battle and prove his worth, he dies—shot through the throat before he can even reach the enemy. Even Benedict's ghost thinks this was an undignified way to go.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending:
    • After a long and sorrowful journey uphill, the book ends with Julia finally overcoming her trauma and undergoing her final transformation into a dryad, freeing herself from her depression at long last and beginning a new, happier chapter in her life.
    • The Free Trader Beowulf group are trying something similar by summoning up a god in order to discover ultimate truth, power, and open a doorway into a Heavenly realm without suffering. It doesn't quite work out.
    • By the end of the book, Quentin has endured numerous humiliations, personal trials, confronted the source of his own discontentment, and even gone to the afterlife. Ultimately, he ends up successfully preventing the Gods from destroying magic, and though he's been kicked out of Fillory, he's finally learned how to attain realistic contentment.
  • Evil Has a Bad Sense of Humor: Julia notes that trickster gods tend not to be very funny.
  • Fantasy Kitchen Sink: When the Free Trader Beowulf group are interviewing supernatural beings, they come across a whole weird slew of them, and then contemplate checking out Greece for a wider reference pool.
  • The Fog of Ages: When Quentin discovers the sixth key, the undead creatures guarding it launches a fireball at him (which misses) and then throws a knife at him (which is even further off target) before remarking that he doesn't even know why he is fighting after all this time guarding the key.
  • Foreshadowing: When Julia suffers serious depression over not making it into Wizarding School, her mother asks her if she's been raped. Guess what sends her into an extended Heroic BSoD later in the book?
  • Genre Savvy: All over, really, but called out a few times. The group didn't split up to search a house because it "would have violated the basic teaching of every movie ever made."
  • God's Hands Are Tied:
    • Ember spouts an excuse along these lines when Quentin asks him why he can't find the magic keys himself, claiming that Quentin must follow his own path to heroism. Quentin, who has encountered a lot of this in the Fillory and Further series, suspects that Ember's just talking bullshit to hide the fact that there are things he can't actually do.
    • Penny says the creators of the multiverse are that powerful and perfect that they can only really do what is right and have no ability to make decisions of their own accord.
  • Harping on About Harpies: Josh has sex with one of these on a Greek mythology themed world, and has the scars to prove it.
  • Hair-Raising Hare: The Seeing Hare, which can apparently see the future; it forecasts the end of the world and ends up killing a royal courtier in the process.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Discussed a lot. Quentin learns what being a hero really means the hard way.
  • Humanoid Abomination: Averted. Quentin guesses that the creators of the multiverse are these and that the human brain registers them as giant silver men but Penny says what you see is what you get.
  • The Magic Goes Away: The Gods don't like the fact that mortals have access to the same tricks as them, and are trying to correct the universe in order to close the magical loophole. Given that this would mean the destruction of numerous magical worlds and the extinction of countless species created through magic, the heroes have to find the seven keys to stop the Gods before it's too late.
  • Masquerade: Turns out there's a second masquerade of hedge witches and various fair folk that the Brakebills magicians don't know about.
  • Mundane Afterlife: Fillory's afterlife is a giant school gym hall where the dead play sports and board games for all eternity; needless to say, the dead are not happy with this arrangement.
  • Nay-Theist: The Free Trader Beowulf group and the Order, who both regard gods as magicians who use a more potent but not fundamentally different form of magic. The former group even tries to gain access to the gods' magic, with catastrophic results.
  • The Old Gods: Referred to by name. They've found out about the magic leak, and they're out to fix it.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: The Dragon of The Grand Canal. Quentin explicitly mentions that he finds it disappointing that not all dragons are the fire-breathing marauding type, and that fantasy books set him up for disappointment.
  • Portal Network: The hedge magicians in the safehouses use a network of magic mirrors to covertly transport themselves throughout Earth.
  • Planet England: Like Narnia, Fillory seems to be the name of the entire world and also one particular country in it.
  • Post-Modern Magik: It's remarked that Josh's level of accuracy in portal magic would have been impossible without the use of Google Street View.
  • The Quest: Part of it takes place in Fillory, so, of course. This one involves seven keys and the stakes are higher than ever.
  • Reinforce Field: Spells stop Venice sinking.
  • Rescued from the Underworld: Quentin tries to do this for Benedict but fails. Played straight when Our Lady Underground rescues him and Julia.
  • Refusal of the Call: Despite feeling that he shouldn't, Quentin declines the quest that the clock tree is obviously a part of in the first meadow. Later averted, as when he returns to Fillory he finds Eliot in the midst of the quest that the clock tree meadow started, and Quentin joins the quest-in-progress.
  • Safely Secluded Science Center: Julia's travels in the backstory eventually lead her to Murs, an isolated commune in the south of France: here, the hedge-witches of the Free Trader Beowulf Group conduct top-secret research into the deepest mysteries of the world. Quite apart from being a beautiful place to live, its relative isolation keeps their work from being investigated by "legitimate" magicians. Even so, it takes a lot of tests before Julia is allowed to join their experiments and finally learns of their true goal: they're trying to make contact with the oldest and most benevolent form of divinity by summoning a goddess.
  • Scenery Based Societal Barometer: The Neitherlands are normally a gloomy but largely sedate Portal Crossroad World that manifests as a ruined city decorated with fountains - and given that the protagonists are incurably driven to travel, it's returned at least once or twice per book. However, in The Magician King, it's soon discovered that weather has inexplicably arrived in the Neitherlands, freezing the fountains and consuming the place in a potentially lethal blizzard - a sure sign to magicians in the know that something very bad is on the horizon. It turns out that the gods have become aware that mortals have learned how to manipulate reality through magic as they have, and are now out to destroy magic - hence the erratic weather in the Neitherlands. When Quentin returns to the Neitherlands at the end of the story, he finds that the frost is beginning to melt and plantlife is beginning to grow throughout the ruined city, signifying that the heroes' efforts have paid off and magic has been preserved.
  • Series Continuity Error: In the first book Quentin can use magic to steal money from ATMs and the narration mentions that this is really easy for him to do but in this book Julia has to show him how to do it.
    • Julia corrects Quentin, saying there are no elves in Fillory when he fought a few of them in the first book.
  • Signature Scent: During Julia's segments of the book, she can recognize magicians by the smell of ozone: when Quentin returns to New York while on vacation, she knows that he's secretly been studying at Brakebills because his hands smell of lightning, and later, when Julia finally begins to work her own magic, she clearly recognizes the electric smell around her first spell - "Quentin's smell," as she calls it.
  • Single-Biome Planet: Josh describes a few of these. When Quentin asks him about it he says he never walked more than a few miles from his starting point on each world.
  • Solar Sail: They find a magic sail on board the Muntjac that collects sunlight as well as wind. The kids had one in one of the Fillory books.
  • Solid Gold Poop: Fillory's Outer Island has Gold Beetles that eat dirt and poop gold.
  • Spotting the Thread: The clue that ultimately allows Julia to overwhelm her Laser-Guided Amnesia lies in the alibi the Brakebills faculty gave for her absence that day; in this case, she was supposedly working on a paper, and the finish essay exists complete with the teacher's marks attached. However, it's only received an A- for the use of Wikipedia, as revealed by a dating error shared by the subject's Wikipedia article. Julia, who is too much of a perfectionist to bother taking such an amateur shortcut, is immediately suspicious; she digs a little deeper, and finds that no earlier versions of this supposedly important paper exist, only a final draft. It's through these tiny details that she gradually uncovers a second set of memories of the day and discover her failed entrance exam for Brakebills.
  • Talking Weapon: One of the competitors in Quentin's tournament is an intelligent sword. Interestingly, it needed someone to wield it in order to fight.
  • Title Drop: Quentin's internal monologue talks about how it feels to be a Magician King when he battle magics his way through a castle.
  • To Hell and Back: Quentin and Julia enter Fillory's underworld to talk to Benedict.
  • Took a Level in Badass:
    • Despite being more or less ineffective in the fight scenes of the previous book, Quentin absolutely demolishes any opposition put in front of him.
    • Julia, the hedge-witch, has become more powerful in many many ways than the Brakebills kids, and over the course of the book we learn how she leveled up and by the end she's taken the ultimate power up by becoming a demi-goddess
    • Also Josh, to a lesser extent. He's set himself up in Venice as The Fixer, a go-between between the "official" magical world and the underground. He's also noted to have become more confident in his magic and we learn has been through some intense shit himself.
    • Literally; the hedge witch network use actual levels — tattooed on their bodies in little stars — as they learn more magic. Julia finds the Level Cap of this — 250 — and a group of brilliant magicians who are all far beyond it.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: Alternates between the present day following Quentin and what happened to Julia during the first book; the two plots mirror each other.
  • Unreliable Expositor: The fairy tale about the seven golden keys is wrong on a couple key details. The evil witch the man was trying to save his daughter from was his wife, and the mother of his child. When he completed his quest, his daughter didn't even remember who he was.
  • We Hardly Knew Ye: Jollyby, the Master of the Hunt, is killed within a few pages of his introduction.
  • World Tree: One of the worlds Josh visited had a giant tree that didn't have a beginning or end.

The third has examples of:

  • Apophenia Plot: Early in the novel, Quentin is called home from his work at Brakebills by the news that his father has died. While there, Quentin grows fixated on the idea that his unassuming dad must have been a magician like him, reasoning that nobody could possibly be that boring. The theorizing incorporates everything from his father's lack of involvement in Quentin's life to his refusal to let him attend a chess tournament when he was a kid, from his habit of keeping an unstrung banjo in his room to his obsession with Jeff Goldblum movies, and eventually forces Quentin to search his father's study from top to bottom for further evidence. He thinks he's hit paydirt when he stumbles upon a box of old index cards drawn with strange tables of indecipherable data, believing it to be some kind of magical cipher. He quickly realizes that the data tables are just stats from his dad's old fantasy golf league; turns out that Quentin's father was just an Indubitably Uninteresting Individual who didn't feel any real attachment to his son, and Quentin was just grasping at straws for something - anything - they might have in common.
  • Bullying a Dragon: Early in the novel, the Lorians decide to invade Fillory; as Eliot makes this abundantly clear, this was a profoundly bad idea, because the Lorains are just a human Proud Warrior Race up against an entire nation of magical beasts and beings led by a small clique of magical monarchs.
  • Cessation of Existence: In the finale Quentin uses the power he inherited from Ember to destroy Fillory's Mundane Afterlife so the dead can rest.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Eliot's first battle against the Lorian army results in an easy win for Fillory; among other things, Eliot takes the invaders by surprise with a mixture of his own magical prowess and spells set up the night before, then reveals his own army - including six giants. Then, he has an entire river attack the Lorians.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: Zigzagged with Umber. As the Beast's patron, he is the ultimate cause of Fillory's discord; by taking Martin's humanity he enabled the Beast's subsequent tyranny and all the tragedy that befell those who crossed his path. However, his actions were without any real malice, and he claims that the Martin incident in particular was actually motivated by sympathy. Janet, at least, does not consider this an excuse and holds him to this trope. If anything, though, it's his "brother" Ember who's the more antagonistic force by the end.
  • Library of Babel: The first book hints the Neitherlands is this but this book confirms it.
  • Magical Land: Quentin spends a lot of the book trying to make a world of his own similar to Fillory.
  • Maybe Ever After: At the end Alice hasn't decided if she wants to be with Quentin or not.
  • Only the Worthy May Pass: It's revealed in this book that Brakebills has magical admissions protocols designed to automatically prevent sociopaths from becoming students, hence why there aren't many Evil Sorcerer types in the real world. Unfortunately, it's not 100% effective, and at least one sociopath slipped the net - resulting in a very messy Noodle Incident that occasionally causes one of the walls to sweat acid on humid days.
  • Portal Book: Martin and Rupert Chatwin are revealed to have visited Fillory via a book in the family library - though in Martin's case, he had to use magic to force it to let him in, given that he was too old to visit. This was Martin's final visit to Fillory before he sold his humanity and became the Beast.
  • Vancian Magic: Some magical feats, such as turning armies invisible or becoming a Barrier Warrior involve casting several spells the night before.

This work mentions and references:

  • The Chronicles of Narnia: The basis of the magical world of Fillory. Though the real Fillory (and all the counterpart characters) turn out to be a cynical, worst-case-scenario version of a Narnia-type setting.
  • Harry Potter: Jason mentions Quidditch, and there are other small allusions throughout.
  • The Once and Future King: The part in the first book when the Brakebills students are transformed into geese is a Shout-Out to the The Sword in the Stone. The King Arthur mythos, in general, is referred to frequently throughout the second book.
  • Dungeons & Dragons: The basis of some spells our heroes cook up and the "level system" used by the hedgewitch safe houses.
  • The Millennium Trilogy
  • The Lord of the Rings: Josh wants to see if he can find Middle Earth at the end of the first book.
  • Traveller: The name of the group Free Trader Beowulf (and the text of their recruiting pitch) are direct references to a famous Classic Traveller scenario—THE introductory adventure for many players in the early 80s once it became clear to GDW that their Worldbuilding was as much of a draw as their ruleset.
  • Discworld and Ringworld are both explicitly mentioned by Josh in the second book as examples of worlds he found or was looking for via the Button.