The Magician King by Lev Grossman

The Magician King: A Novel

When Lev Grossman’s The Magicians came out a few years back, I eagerly devoured it.  I loved the way it turned fantasy tropes on their ears and made me look at the genre in an entirely new way.  The long awaited sequel, The Magician King, doesn’t disappoint despite the long wait.  It goes off in an entirely new direction, but it delivers the same thought-provoking tale as its predecessor.

(Description nicked from B&

“Quentin and his friends are now the kings and queens of Fillory, but the days and nights of royal luxury are starting to pall. After a morning hunt takes a sinister turn, Quentin and his old friend Julia charter a magical sailing ship and set out on an errand to the wild outer reaches of their kingdom. Their pleasure cruise becomes an adventure when the two are unceremoniously dumped back into the last place Quentin ever wants to see: his parent’s house in Chesterton, Massachusetts. And only the black, twisted magic that Julia learned on the streets can save them.”

Those who have read the Narnia novels will easily recognize the basic plot of this book, as it bears strong resemblance to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  What starts as a simple quest soon blossoms into something deeper and more affecting.  Quentin is still much as he was at the end of The Magicians—discontented and idle.  It is these defects that lead him to leave behind all that he has gained in the hopes of finding something to inspire him… and inspire him in the way he thought rulership of Fillory would.

However, Quentin will learn some hard lessons during his journey, and I am glad that he does a good deal of growing.  In this, the middle section of Quentin’s ultimate journey, he gains wisdom at a terrible cost.  This story contains punishment for his hubris alongside the triumph of his maturing.  It would have been a lesser novel if Quentin hadn’t progressed this far, and given that Grossman is known for overturning fantasy tropes, he could have easily kept Quentin in his state of perpetual immaturity.

But even greater depth is attained by the inclusion of Julia’s story.  Her chapters are roughly alternated with Quentin’s, and they provide a stark contrast to his ennui.  Julia wasn’t handed magic through instruction and nurturing; rather, she had to fight for every scrap of knowledge that she gained.  Watching her story unfold is heart-wrenching, and readers should be prepared for some truly horrible things before she joins the others as the rulers of Fillory.  While Quentin had his struggles, Julia had real tribulations.

In many ways, this novel is more complex than The Magicians.  Fillory is no longer the fantasy world that turns out to be darker than imagined.  It has become multi-layered, with good and evil side by side, mixed with a good quantity of that which is neither.  It is a place that both comforts and challenges those within its borders, and its influence is felt far beyond them as well.  Since so much of what is written here is allegorical and draws on many of the fantasy traditions even as it subsumes them, it’s a world that is easy to return to.  It reminds readers of the best novels of our childhood even as it adds an adult layer to them.

These are characters that I would love to know in person, with all their flaws and triumphs.  These are places that I would love to visit in person, with all their horrors and beauties.  Lev Grossman’s The Magician King is a novel of depth and wit that stands among the best of this year’s offerings.

This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on September 15, 2011.

Series: n/a
ISBN: 9780670022311
Publisher: Viking Penguin
Page Count: 400
Publication Date: August 9, 2011
Acquired: Provided by the publisher
Author Website
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