The Magicians by Lev Grossman came as a huge surprise for me, because at the time I expected something like the “Harry Potter for college students” hype the book received, and instead found a novel that was somehow both funny and moving, a novel about escapism and the inevitable point when that escapism is confronted by reality. It was a great story that also had a lot of thematic depth, a book that’s both entertaining and thought-provoking.
Today I’m posting my review of its sequel, The Magician King, partly because I liked it almost as much as its predecessor, and partly because I’m currently lucky enough to be conducting an interview with Lev that’s getting longer and longer. Because we’re talking about some of the same ideas I mention in these reviews, I decided to post both of them even though the books have been out for a while.
(I also wanted to put some text here before the actual review starts, because it starts off with a spoiler for the first book. So, if you haven’t read The Magicians yet, you may want to go read my review of that novel instead, and skip this one until later.)
At the end of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Brakebills graduate Quentin Coldwater abandoned a cushy but dead-end insecure job to become co-ruler of the magical land of Fillory with his former classmates Eliot and Janet and his erstwhile flame Julia. I absolutely loved the drama of that final scene, with Eliot, Janet and Julia hovering thirty stories up in the air and shattering Quentin’s office window to drag him along on this new adventure. (But did anyone else think that Quentin stepping off that ledge sounded a bit like someone committing suicide, or was that just me?)
The Magicians left lots of questions unanswered. How did Julia meet Eliot and Janet, and how exactly did she get so strong? What happened to Josh? Or Penny, for that matter? What was actually going on with the whole Neitherlands setup? Is it just a coincidence that it resembled a huge version of a welters board? (Or more likely the other way round: is the welters board meant to look like a small Neitherlands grid?) And what, most importantly, were these four disaffected young magicians thinking, installing themselves as the rulers of Narnia, sorry, Fillory? As much as I loved The Magicians for presenting a solid stand-on-its-own story, it was at the same time practically begging for a sequel. Thank goodness it’s finally here.
At the start of The Magician King, Quentin, Janet, Eliot and Julia are comfortably set up as the kings and queens of Fillory, with Eliot the nominal High King. They lead the leisurely lives of figurehead royalty, eating and drinking luxuriously, going on the occasional royal hunt, waving to the populace from the balcony of their palace. They’re basically lazing around and enjoying themselves. The only thing that proves to be lacking in their lives as the rulers of a magical utopia proves to be, well, a challenge. Or as Quentin realizes, somewhat counter-intuitively in the first chapter of the novel:
Being king wasn’t the beginning of the story, it was the end. [...] This was the happily ever after part. Close the book, put it down, walk away.
Meanwhile, Julia has amped up her goth appearance and become increasingly quiet and mysterious. She’s “gone native” and, Quentin notes, seems to have given up using contractions altogether. Something has happened to her, something that left her powerful but damaged. Quentin wonders how expensive her education was, and it’s clear that he’s not thinking of the cost in terms of a monetary value.
Eventually, Quentin realizes that all this laying around isn’t exactly what he had in mind when he relocated to the magical realm of Fillory, so he jumps at the first chance to do something semi-meaningful: he will conduct an expedition to Outer Island, a tiny and remote speck-on-the-map, predominantly inhabited by fishermen who haven’t paid their taxes for a while. It’s clear that the taxes aren’t really what’s important here — after all, Fillory is a land of hyperabundance and the only problem with its economy is a chronic shortage of actual shortages. Quentin is just itching to do something heroic, and if that involves refitting a ship (the Muntjac) and setting out to talk to some yokels about their back taxes, at least it also includes an exciting sea voyage and some new horizons.
So Quentin sets out on The Voyage of the Dawntreader Muntjac, accompanied by a sullen apprentice cartographer named Benedict, the best swordsman in the realm (who goes by the unlikely name of Bingle), a talking sloth, and the ever-mysterious Julia. This journey will take them to the one place you’d least suspect — at least if you haven’t read the plot summary on the inside flap of the novel — and eventually to a quest that, yes, will determine the very fate of Fillory….
If you loved The Magicians as much as I did, you’ll probably be pleased with The Magician King. Yes, the novelty has worn off a bit, but in exchange you get a story that’s actually more structured and more obviously working its way towards a solid finale than the first novel’s. It’s a proper adventure, really, although as you’d probably expect there are some false starts, detours and roundabouts along the way. You’ll also get answers to some of the questions that were left unanswered in The Magicians, but new questions pop up to take their place. I wish authors did requests, because I now have a list of possible subjects for future stories that could expand on things that are only hinted at here. At one point, a character throws out the idea of inverse profundity — “The deeper you go into the cosmic mysteries, the less interesting everything gets.” I haven’t experienced that yet with these books. Quite the opposite, really.
The most noticeable change in The Magician King is that Julia takes over the spotlight for a good chunk of the novel. Once Lev Grossman has set up Quentin’s quest, roughly every other chapter starts filling in Julia’s story, recounting what happened to her between her failed entrance exam at Brakebills and the final scene of The Magicians. The good news is that she’s a fascinating character and that her storyline adds a whole new dimension to this fantasy universe. The bad news, at least for people who groused about the mopiness and general “insanely privileged but still too myopic to be happy” quality of people like Quentin and Eliot, is that Julia is, well, like that, too. Sort of. To be fair, her depression seems to be more of the chemical imbalance variety, rather than Quentin’s all-purpose teenage angst. More importantly (and fortunately) she’s got the gumption to actually do something about what’s lacking in her life. She picks herself up and finds her way into an underground scene for people who want to learn magic but didn’t make it in to Brakebills. (Lev Grossman also put me out my misery by finally throwing in a very welcome reference. Julia always reminded me of someone, but I could never put my finger on it, and now I finally know who it was: Fairuza Balk’s character in The Craft.) By the time Julia’s and Quentin’s plots converge, you’ll have answers to several questions, but again, also many new ones. Julia’s storyline is what makes The Magician King a great book.
Meanwhile, Quentin is on his quest, and in the process finds out all sorts of fascinating things about the nature of the Neitherlands, the current whereabouts of some of his other friends, and the origins of magic. For much of the novel, the entire quest seems to be one gigantic red herring. Quentin often has the feeling that he’s in a fantasy novel, just not a proper one. At one point, he hilariously realizes that it’s very hard to deliver his lines without sounding like a Monty Python skit. At other times, he feels like he’s improvising in a play to which everyone has the script, or like he might be a minor character in someone else’s story. He also feels the acute lack of a soundtrack during combat scenes. (At that point, I couldn’t help thinking of another movie: A Knight’s Tale, with its rock soundtrack that provided such a jarring but effective contrast with what was actually happening on screen. Both of these novels often create a literary version of that type of cognitive dissonance, e.g. when someone uses Google Street View to pinpoint the exact location for a magical portal, or uses magic to jailbreak an iPhone.)
The Magician King is a deceptively cheerful book, because even if it all seems like a lark for Quentin early on, there’s a darker undercurrent right from the beginning. Regardless, it’s again a highly entertaining book to read because it’s filled with cultural references, from Shakespeare to video games and, of course, lots of fantasy. There are so many of these that the prose practically sparkles with possible points of contact for the larger geek culture out there. Grossman also sets up several scenes perfectly, leading you to expect something to happen, only to find out that you’re having the rug pulled out from under you, sometimes in a way that’s truly, horribly shocking. I fell for these hook, line and sinker. Be warned, gentle reader.
If you loved The Magicians, you probably don’t need much convincing to check out this sequel. Yes, it’s a very different book: the whole Harry Potter shtick is basically gone, Quentin has gained some welcome confidence, Julia is front and center. At the same time, it riffs on the same themes and ideas that made The Magicians so good, and it adds some layers to the story and the fantasy universe. Some of these don’t exactly line up for me yet, but maybe all will be explained in another sequel? There’d better be another book in this series, because dammit, I want more.