Book Review: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

“But I do have a choice, and I only have one life, and if it’s all right with you I’m going to spend it in Fillory, in my castle, chilling with dwarves and sleeping on pegasus feathers.” – Quentin

Lev Grossman’s breakout book, The Magicians, was part Harry Potter, part Narnia, and part “literary”. Someday soon I’ll write about how silly the distinction of “literary-ness” is but until then we’ll just assume it means that it gets down to real feelings and is well written. And The Magicians was all that, a disaffected youth finds out that magic is real and goes to school to learn how to do it. Then he goes to a fantasy land and defeats an evil magician. Sounds like one of a billion fantasy romps but the anger and sadness emanating from Quentin, the hero, twists it just enough to make it a worthwhile effort. I didn’t love that book, well written though it was, because the near-constant whining was kind of annoying. This sequel, The Magician King, fixes that for the most part and is better for it.

That’s not to say that it’s completely without emotional depth. Now that Quentin and his friends are kings and queens of Fillory, the Narnia fill-in, he’s beginning to feel like he’s a bit useless. Tired of the partying and decreeing, he goes on a minor quest to the end of Fillory’s territory to collect taxes. It’s not much of an adventure but it’s enough. Of course, everything doesn’t go as planned and what follows takes as much from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader as that book did from Homer’s Odyssey. It’s a nautical quest with exotic islands and a mission to save the world.

Quentin is more mature now, not angry at the world for not being like it is in books because, well, it is like it is in books. He’s happy to be questing but he finds that questing isn’t all it’s advertised to be. When some of his comrades start to die there’s a much greater sense of loss than I’ve found in other books of this type. The end of The Magicians is magical and terrifying, a hard balance to strike when you’re dealing with such unrealistic powers. Grossman carries that over here. When a group of magicians try to summon an old god the result is horrifying and devastating. And, though this book doesn’t end on a huge battle as the first did, the climax is a powerful reminder that even Magician Kings don’t get everything to go their way.

Map drawn by Roland Chambers showing the lands beyond Fillory

Much of the book deals with the prospect of becoming a hero with a capital H. A hero can’t sit on his throne and drink all day and all night. They must do something heroic, even if that heroism causes harm to the people around them. Is being a hero even desirable if your friends suffer? This is one of the two big questions the book studies. The other being whether such an obvious fantasy world is a valid place to spend your life. This dichotomy between being happy where you’re from and desiring somewhere better is personified in the two female characters, Poppy and Julia. Poppy, a new character from the “real” world doesn’t understand the compulsion to live in a fantasy land away from the struggles that make everyday life worth living. She’s a constant optimist and a breath of fresh air in a world filled with people fearing the worst. Julia, on the other hand, is barely a human anymore. She can’t function on Earth and only magical Fillory provides respite from all the crap she’s been through in her short life. Part of the book is her backstory and it echoes Quentin’s journey in the first book, though to an even more exaggerated degree. It’s certainly not as fun as the rest of the book, but it’s an important area to study and where she is by the end of the book is a fascinating look at what it means to be human.

This all sounds very serious and it is, at points, but it is also a really funny book. Quentin’s grown a sense of humor about himself in the two years between the events of the first book and this one and the lands explored beyond the bounds of Fillory are inventive. There’s a take on the Underworld visit from the Odyssey that’s equally funny and dreary. It ends, as all middle parts of a trilogy must, on a down note, though it does so well and with enough of a sense of finality that the story is satisfying in its own right. You certainly want to see what will happen next and how the bigger story will come together but the quest is complete by the end of the book. It’s one of the best of the genre and well worth any fan of fantasy or literary fiction.

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