The Magician King by Lev Grossman (2011) 542 p.
The Magicians is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year – a thoughtful and realistic take on the childhood fantasies of Harry Potter and Narnia which manages to simultaneously deconstruct and celebrate those legends. One of the only things I didn’t like about it was its ending, which flipped the story on its head and would have ruined the book if not for the fact that I knew there was a sequel.
I can’t quite agree with ending the first novel that way (especially knowing that Grossman didn’t intend to write a sequel at the time) but The Magician King delivers a more than satisfactory continuation of Quentin Coldwater’s tale, not only returning to its old themes and ideas, but building on them and exploring new ones. (Spoilers for The Magicians from here on in.)
The Magicians finished with Quentin’s adventures in Fillory leaving him not only unsatisfied and unfulfilled, but also mourning the death of his girlfriend Alice. It then took a sharp twist when his old friends Eliot, Janet and Julia showed up to take him back to Fillory to reign as king. And so The Magician King begins after Quentin has been reigning over Fillory for some time, gradually beginning to feel his listless ennui set in once again. A minor voyage to visit an outlying island, to see why they haven’t been paying taxes, seems in order. (There’s more than a touch of Voyage of the Dawn Treader here.) The book really begins to kick off after Quentin and Julia arrive at that island and finds themselves thrust into a deeper quest.
Intertwined with this quest is Julia’s backstory. In The Magicians, she was a background character, a failed Brakebills entrant stuck with fragments of memory about what she failed to achieve, who confronted Quentin when he came home for summer holidays and begged him to get her into Brakebills. By the novel’s end she has inexplicably become a magician; The Magician King explains how. While Quentin’s story in The Magicians was one of achieving a dream and ultimately being dissatisfied with it, Julia’s story is one of glimpsing a dream and then having the door cruelly slammed shut. What would have happened to Harry Potter if he had met Hagrid and gone to Diagon Alley, but then been unable to cross through Platform 9 3/4s? What would have happened if he’d been forced to return to Privet Drive in London’s suburbs? What would he have been willing to do to get back into that magical world?
Both my housemates read the book before me, and hated it for Julia’s backstory. I had no issue with it, apart from a few cringey chapters where she gets involved with an online forum (and meets its denizens in real life later… where they’re still referred to by their online usernames). There is a slight issue in the fact that her story is juxtaposed against Quentin’s adventures, which are totally awesome, and I while I was never bored reading Julia’s story I was never exactly enthralled either – at least until its horrifying climax, which is excellent, although both my housemates separately spoiled it for me.
And Quentin’s story is fantastic. It’s full of neat little events, like when he wakes up in the morning on an island, wanders away from his sleeping companions to take a leak, and ends up getting drawn into an unexpected adventure. Just as in The Magicians, Grossman is riffing on the fantasy genre while also revelling in it; it’s a rare novel that manages to do this so well. I love the meta-awareness Grossman imbues in all his characters, who aren’t so much aware that they’re in a story as much as they’re comparing their lives to stories, or imagining how other people see what they’re doing:
“All due respect to your being king here, but Julia and I are king and queen of Fillory, and we have to get back there. For all intents and purposes we are on a fucking quest here. You are now on the quest team too. I am deputising you. We have to get back to Fillory, and we don’t know how we’re going to do it. That’s the problem.”
The old wood of Josh’s dining table felt cool against Quentin’s forehead. In a few more seconds he’d sit up again.That’s how long it would take to roll his brain back to the state it was in before it thought that their troubles were over. Until then Quentin would just enjoy the cool solidity of the table for one second more. He let the despair wash over him. The button was gone. He thought about banging his head a few times, just lightly, but that would have been overdoing it.
Another aspect that impressed me was the direction in which Grossman takes the novel. I read a review at some point, which I can’t find anymore, which said something along the lines of “Grossman seems to have forgotten the reason he wrote The Magicians in the first place.” This made me worry that he would write a fantasy adventure which ignored Quentin’s crushing ennui, from which he perpetually suffers despite living in an amazing fantasy world (because problems are on the inside, kids!) Fortunately, this doesn’t happen at all. Quentin’s issues are still very much a part of the book, but Grossman moves forward with them and Quentin actually grows as a character. The Magicians was a concept novel in which the characters were serving the conceit. The Magician King, on the other hand, is Grossman taking the characters and developing them into something more; by the novel’s ending, Quentin is a much more mature, likeable and even selfless character than he was in The Magicians. The ending could also be considered a fucking bummer, but I found it quite uplifting and hopeful, which I’m pretty sure is the correct interpretation.
Ultimately I think The Magicians is the stronger novel, simply for its originality, the fresh take it gave the childhood fantasy mythos. The Magician King falters at times, and is held together by a less coherent theme. But it’s still fun, funny, exciting and compulsively readable, with a bunch of great fantasy set-pieces and genuinely surprising character development. I greatly recommend this novel and its predecessor to fantasy fans, and I hope Grossman gives us a third one.