BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Lev Grossman
2011, Viking Adult
Filed Under: Fantasy.
This is the sequel to 2009’s The Magicians, a flawed but very enjoyable book that I awarded an Honorable Mention for our Best Books of 2009. The strength of The Magicians was its ability to flip convention on its head. The story began like a Harry Potter clone completely aware of its position in the fantasy genre and its similarities with C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. Then it took a good idea and ran with it: what if, instead of saving the world, the wizard students endowed with all sorts of power and advantage over normal humans merely graduated and had nothing to do? Quentin and friends fell into a black hole of hedonism, only managing to pull themselves out when they create a quest for themselves–one that almost harmed a world more than it helped it.
In The Magician King we get something much different, in part because it’s much of the same over again, just rearranged a bit.
The story (which more or less requires you read the first book) begins where its predecessor left off, with Quentin, Eliot, Janet, and Julia lording over Fillory (an obvious Narnia analogue) as kings and queens. Again bored with his life, Quentin goes off on in search of a quest and stumbles upon a magic door that flings him and Julia on a one-way trip back to Massachusetts. The two travel the Earth (oddly enough doing very little magic–they steal multiple cars instead of flying for some reason) in search of a way back. Friends are made and lost, dimensions are traveled between, sex is had, people die, universes are threatened.
Quentin is a very good anti-hero. Much of the strength of both books in this series is the success they find in centering on an interesting antagonist who is a bit of an asshole. Quentin is selfish, impulsive, and occasionally obtuse. He’s often more pitiable than he is likable. I don’t want to divulge too much of the plot, because once it gets started it’s really the most the book has going for it. Magician King takes a while to get past the overly-long exposition of Quentin’s malaise and establish the book’s place in the larger world, but once the main plot arc finally gets rolling–about a third of the way in–things get much more trans-dimensional and entertaining.
Magician King also does more to flesh out Julia’s character. Not only does Julia (a hedge-witch reject of the same magic school the others attended) play an integral part of he book’s primary plot line, but she’s more interesting than just about everyone else, maybe even including Quentin. (Although, as with much of rest of the book, her story isn’t the most original thing out there.)
Also troubling is the land of Fillory, where much of the book takes place. It’s still not a felt-out enough world:
“Hi!” It was what Fillorians said instead of “hey.”
Now even in full context of the book, it’s hard to tell here if Quentin is being sarcastic or not. Nonetheless, it speaks to how non-specific much of Fillory is. It also brings up the book’s sense of humor. In general, the humor is a touch difficult to evaluate. Much like in the first book, I was put off at first by the self-aware jokes and sarcasm comparing the subject matter at hand with the broader fantasy genre, a Fellowship of the Ring quip here, a Hogwarts reference there. The constant breaking of the wall between fantasy and reality can be tough, but after awhile, it grows on you, and is much easier to appreciate. At some point something in your mind clicks, and stops trying to read the book as parody or pastiche, and takes it for what it is. Once that happens, lines like this are funny:
Nothing made you look like more of a dick than standing there trying to find the end of your scabbard with the tip of your sword.
As a fan (if not an admirer) of the first book, I found The Magician King to be very enjoyable. It’s not much more than a sequel, but it’s a solid one. If you liked The Magicians, Magician King is probably worth your time. If you think it sounds like something you might like, check out my review of the first one, then go get that (I saw it on a remainder shelf the other day, so it won’t set you back much) and give it a whirl first.
Similar Reads: The Magicians (Grossman), The Book of Lost Things (Connolly)