Lev Grossman has been in the literary news lately for his defense of the fantasy genre as relevant and important for adult readers. Not content to merely offer up his opinion on the matter, Grossman has been making a strong case for his argument with two incredibly strong novels, The Magicians (see my glowing review) and its follow-up The Magician King. Billed by some as “Harry Potter meets Narnia for grown-ups”, this reductionist description misses much of the subtlety and artistry that make this two book series (so far) so amazing. The Magician King is an excellent novel that works on many levels. It’s an homage to classic fantasy novels, it’s top shelf social commentary, and, most imporantly, it’s a ripping good story.
The Magician King begins shortly after when The Magicians left off. (Quit reading now to avoid potential spoilers of how the first book ends.) Quentin and three other young magicians now reign as the kings/queens of the magical land of Fillory. It quickly becomes apparent to Quentin that being the king of a magical world is not necessarily a thrill a minute. He notes than even when he…
…tried to get serious about something, there turned out not to be much to be serious about. It was all ritual pop and cirumstance. Even money was just for show…The others had all but given up on trying to make themselves useful, but Quentin couldn’t let it go. Maybe that was what was nagging at him, as he stood on the edge of that meadow in the woods. There must be something real somewhere out there, but he could never quite seem to get his hands on it.
A routine tax matter comes up for the kingdon, and Qurntic turns it into an epic quest – just to have something to do. Along the way, the quest becomes very real, and the fate of Fillory hangs in the balance.
The narrative alternates between Quentin’s quest and the backstory of one of the queens, Julia. In the first book Quentin was chosen to attend Brakebills an elite “college of magical pedagogy.” Julia was left behind but became a magician anyway through incredible self-sacrifice and courage. A hint of Julia’s desperateness to become a magician and the ruthless path she undertook to achieve her goal are hinted at in this quote from the novel. The emotional cost of Julia’s journey becomes apparent as the novel progresses.
In my review of the first book I suggested that a thematic undercurrent of the novel was Grossman’sexploration of the ”…the transition from adolescence through college and into the job market [adulthood], especially among “elite” students.” With Julia’s story, I felt that Grossman was continuing the thematic thread (as I saw it) while developing it further by adding the element of social class to the story.
I feel it’s important to note that both novels are just plain fun to read. Much of the fun in the novels comes from picking up on the allusions to other novels. The characters in these novels are also aware of the fantasy canon and pop culture and often reference it to describe the situations that they are in. The novels, despite their magical subject, are also rooted in the reality of this world and time. I laughed out loud when a character mentioned that she used magic to jailbreak her iPhone. Grossman also gets occasional digs into the literature-must-be-realism crowd with barbs like this:
It had the feel of a scene from a novel written by an earnest realist who was more concerned with presenting an amalgamation of naturalistic details that fit together plausibly than with telling a story that wouldn’t bore the fuck out of the reader.
You may be asking yourself, “Do I need to read The Magicians first? Or can I just dive right into The Magician King?” Yes. You need to read The Magicians first. You’ll be able to understand the words on the page of The Magician King without reading Magicians first, but you’ll be doing yourself a large disservice. With these novels, it is all about the journey.
Grossman confirmed that there will be a third novel in this series. If it were available for pre-order today, I’d hand over my money now.
Atlanta reader bonus: Lev Grossman is reading tonight, August 29, at the Barnes and Noble in Buckhead. 7PM. I’m there.