The Magician King is the sequel to Lev Grossman’s New York Times bestselling novel The Magicians, which was recently optioned by Fox as a television series. Lev Grossman also won this year’s John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, so it seems to be a pretty good year for him.
Since this is a direct sequel, there will be spoilers for The Magicians in this review. If you do not want to be spoiled, do not read the rest of this review. Personally, I don’t think this is a book where knowing the details spoils it since so much of what makes it enjoyable is the tone and the way it is written, but I want to make sure those who can’t abide spoilers at all know to stay away!
Now that Quentin is one of the four kings and queens of Fillory, he’s finding himself growing bored. It turns out there’s not really that much ruling that needs to be done when residing over a magical kingdom where it’s nearly impossible not to have a bountiful harvest. There are few people and plenty of food and other resources, so there’s not a lot of conflict among the people. What duties there are with ruling are divided among four kings and queens. Quentin is finding the constant leisure time, feasting, and drinking is starting to get dull. He needs some adventure in his life: he needs to go on a quest.
So when he hears the Fillorian citizens of the distant Outer Island have not been paying their taxes, he decides to go there himself and tell them to pay up. In the true spirit of questing, he has a ship refinished to his specifications (which costs more than the unpaid taxes he’s going after) and holds a tournament to find the best fighter in the land to become his bodyguard. Then he sets out on his journey. His actual visit is pretty uneventful since he tours the island and no one argues with him about paying the missing taxes. While he is there, he hears about the magical golden key and sets out to a land beyond Fillory to retrieve them. The first one is easily found, but his magical moment is shattered when he and Queen Julia walk through the portal it unlocks – only to find they are back on Earth.
Quentin and Julia are desperate to get back to Fillory, and they may only be able to do so by delving into Julia’s past and her unique knowledge of magic, gained by learning it outside of the magic school.
In The Magicians, Lev Grossman took the fantasy tropes of the school of magic and the portal to a magical realm and made them more unconventional. The world of learning magic was both more mundane – since learning magic had its dull moments, just like learning any subject – and scarier because messing up had far bigger consequences that were not magically reversed. The part that really made it different to me was the cast of characters, though: a group of very intelligent but very sullen teenagers. They got drunk, they swore, they could be real jerks, they messed up, and there was nothing heroic about them.
The Magician King is an examination of the quests so common to fantasy and what it really means to be a hero. In this book, Quentin wants to find adventure, go on a quest, and be a hero. Now in his twenties, Quentin is not the same person he was in the first book. He’s not perfect hero material by any means – after all, his initial quest is mainly about easing boredom. Since the people don’t really seem to need his help in a magical kingdom, that doesn’t necessarily mean Quentin wouldn’t take on a more noble quest. He does actually express interest in wanting to do something for them, although I’m not sure if it’s really out of the goodness of his heart or just so he has something to keep himself occupied. When he does undertake his quest, it’s not a selfless act but a grandiose way of going out and finding adventure, although there are some definite signs that Quentin’s developed some empathy along the way. When he meets a talented young cartographer, he reminds him of his younger self and he encourages him by bringing him with him and giving him the task of making a better map of the Outer Island. Likewise, he meets a little girl on the Outer Island who is neglected by her mother, reminding him of his own childhood. Quentin notices this and performs acts of kindness for her. Also – this doesn’t go into details about the specific ending but deals more with the change in Quentin’s character at the end, but since it is from the very end, I’m hiding it behind spoiler tags:
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This isn’t just Quentin’s story, though. It’s also the story of Julia, the girl who was rejected from Brakebills but was never able to forget about it like she was supposed to. Throughout the book, it fills in the gaps of what happened to Julia back on Earth after that and before she became one of the queens of Fillory. Much of her story wasn’t as compelling to me as the present story, although I certainly admired her intelligence and determination in pursuing magic – and how she became the best magician on Earth in the process. I also liked the way it showed that there were some advantages to the way she learned magic as opposed to studying it at Brakebills like Quentin and the others. The two ways were different but one wasn’t necessarily superior to the other. What happened to Julia was important, especially because it did end up tying in with the main quest. It was even interesting for the most part, especially once it got to the part that was crucial to the end. Some of the parts in the middle of her story did drag a bit, though, and Julia is less likable than the new Quentin (not the old one from the same time this took place, though – I was really surprised by how much I actually liked Quentin in this book). She’s darker and has less wry humor than Quentin does, and I think the latter reason especially is why I never quite enjoyed her parts to the same degree, regardless of having an appreciation for them. At the end, Julia also undergoes a transformation, although hers is a very different one from Quentin’s.
There is one part of Julia’s past that may bother some sensitive to certain topics, but this is one of the very last parts in her flashbacks so it’s behind spoiler tags:
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I loved the writing, mostly for the sense of humor, phrasing, and Quentin’s observations.
He liked the dryads, the mysterious nymphs who watched over oak trees. You really knew you were in a magical fantasy otherworld when a beautiful woman wearing a skimpy dress made of leaves suddenly jumped out of a tree. [pp. 7]
There was some murmuring among among the upper servants that such a spartan chamber was not entirely suitable for a king of Fillory, but Quentin had decided that one of the good things about being a king of Fillory was that you got to decide what’s suitable for a king of Fillory.
And anyway, if it was high royal style they wanted, the High King was their man. Eliot had a bottomless appetite for it. His bedroom was the gilded, diamond-studded, pearl-encrusted rococo lair of a god-king. Whatever else it was, it was entirely suitable.
It’s not heavily or densely written, but there are so many quotable lines that made me laugh out loud. That said, there were a few jokes that made me groan, too, such as the reference to the diplomatic queen as “Fillory Clinton.” There were also a few occasions were a joke was initially funny, but then it was drawn out too much. The book is peppered with references from Dr. Who to Lord of the Rings to Super Mario Brothers.
The Magician King is every bit as good as The Magicians, perhaps even a little bit better in its execution. Once again, Lev Grossman has taken some familiar fantasy tropes and made them something slightly different than what you normally read. It’s not always happy and the unhappy parts are not magically reversed, but the hero’s quest has a perfect ending with threads tied together well. In addition, there’s some great character development and parallels between the journeys of the two main characters. It’s not a perfect book since a few parts did drag and while they were mostly funny some of the jokes did fall flat, but it is one where the more I think about it, the more I like it.
My Rating: 8/10
Where I got my reading copy: ARC from BEA where I briefly met and chatted with Lev Grossman and a finished copy from the publisher. (Most of what I read was the finished copy, especially since I reread a lot of it for writing this review. All quotes are from the finished copy.)