Remember that feeling after you finished school or university or college or whatever but before you got moved out into the Real Adult World? That feeling of being surrounded by an overwhelming number of opportunities, of being paralysed by the dread of choosing the wrong one, of not really being sure what was going to happen next, of wondering if this is really what life is meant to be like for the rest of forever, of not wanting to move forward but not forward but not wanting to stay? The Magician King is about that feeling. And magic.
(Some spoilers ahead for the prequel, The Magicians.)
Quentin Coldwater is a king of Fillory, the magical land from a series of books he adored as a child, which he discovered was real in the previous instalment. He’s growing fat and comfortable.
But Quentin being Quentin, he’s still unhappy. He wants more, and he gets it when he ventures out on a seemingly straightforward tax-collecting mission in Fillory’s farthest-flung tropical corners: circumstance tosses him and his co-royal Julia – his childhood friend who, you’ll remember, failed the entrance exam to magic academy Brakebills in The Magicians – back into the real world, where they stumble into a quest to save Fillory and magic itself.
The synopsis reads like standard magical-fantasy-land stuff, but Lev Grossman is awesome at blowing up your expectations of those kinds of stories. In Magicians he turned “boy finds out he’s magical, is educated in the ways of magic” tropes on their head. In Magician King he does the same for “boy finds out he must save the world”.
These books also address the realities of fantasy, as dumb as that sounds. If your teenage fantasies came true as an adult, you’d probably be pretty disappointed, as Quentin is. And, like Quentin, you’d soften the blow with layers of hip, disaffected cynicism and knowing pop-culture references. (You wouldn’t see Hermione using as iPhone, as King‘s Australian witch Poppy does)
And this attitude is important because, you know what, fantasy – if taken literally – is kind of lame. (I say that as a fantasy aficionado, FYI.) Grossman recognises this, which stops his work from falling into the twee trap of the classics he’s working with.
Like The Magicians, The Magician King meanders all over the place: Quentin visits Venice and talks to a dragon, then later descends into the underworld. He meets a sloth called Abigail along the way. It’s dreamlike, patched together, and it suits the story wonderfully.
Unlike its predecessor, King is not just about Quentin. Julia’s desperately sad, compelling backstory unfolds in tandem with the A-plot: these flashbacks to her magical education tell a dark, grimly satisfying tale with a devastating kick-in-the-balls climax. Julia’s magic is old and dangerous, nothing like Harry Potter or even grown-up stuff like True Blood: magic is barely under human control, and there are real consequences to using it. It’s fascinating.
I guess with sequels there’s always the question: is The Magician King better than The Magicians? But I don’t think the question even matters here. One is foundation, the other is build. Magicians was startlingly fresh, but Magician King enriches what we already know.
Grossman has confirmed there’s a third book coming (yay!) – he’s created too rich a universe not to explore further, and the end of King leaves Quentin’s story wide open. Like the magic in his books, the potential of Grossman’s fantasy world is near-limitless.
Previously: Book review: The Magicians, Lev Grossman