Meta, Magic, and Maturity: A Review of The Magician King

The Magician King is part two (I assume) of Lev Grossman’s (@leverus) trilogy that began with his 2009 book, The Magicians.

The Magicians told the tale of Quentin Coldwater, a nerdy but brilliant teenager still obsessing over a childhood series of books based in the Narnia-like land of Fillory. Quentin is accepted into the magical college Brakebills (think Hogwarts by way of Gossip Girl), where he becomes a wizard. Like any university, there are cliques, romance, and painful lessons. Quentin appeared to get everything he’s always dreamed of: recognition that he is special, mastery of magic, and a girlfriend. And yet, after graduation, he is unhappy. The magicians lead a life of decadence, and isolated from the real world, they begin to turn on each other. Until they learn that Fillory is real and in danger. Seizing upon this chance to do something great, Quentin and his friends jump at the chance. [Spoilers] Although they pay a terrible price, the book ends with Quentin and three of his friends installed as Kings and Queens of Fillory. [End Spoilers]

I enjoyed The Magicians. It was fun to pick up on the references, and I thought Grossman did a fantastic job of describing the shy, nerdy boy in high school and college (some of the scenes hit very close to home). But I found the loose structure, inconsistent pacing, and teenage soap opera elements to be a bit off putting. Still, I enjoyed seeing Quentin learn the lessons that sometimes getting everything you wanted isn’t always an easy process and sometimes it’s nothing like what you expected. This is perhaps a bleak lesson, but important to many young people leaving school and embarking on a career path for which they had studied for years.

The Magician King picks up a couple years into King Quentin’s reign. He has put on some weight; he is going through the motions of being a fairy tale king; and he is happy if unsatisfied. Quentin struggles with finding something to do that will help him flesh out his “happily ever after.” He decides to go on a quest. The first idea is to seek after a magical beast, and it ends in failure and prophesies of doom. The second idea is a more practical quest: a voyage to the Outer Island in search of unpaid taxes. He sails with a small crew that includes Julia, his high school crush, now a queen of Fillory, and someone even more broken than Quentin. While on the Outer Island, Quentin learns of a magical key that winds up the world, and unable to resist a magical quest, he decides to go find it. He soon learns that the existence of Fillory, Earth, and all other worlds are in peril. Will Quentin once again become a hero? What price will he pay this time?

Intercut with this adventure are chapters that tell Julia’s story. She did not go to Brakebills; she is a hedge witch. Instead she learned her magic the hard way: travelling to safe houses cum flop houses, picking up spells from creatures who prey on coeds, and abandoning all who were close to her. Julia’s struggles with self-doubt, depression, and pain are moving. In a standout chapter that will leave you primed for the novel’s climax, readers learn the true reason why she is so different and damaged as they also learn the reason the universe has been put in danger. Grossman does a fantastic job with Julia’s story, and ultimately, those chapters are the better half of the book.

The Magician King shares The Magicians’ meta references, and there is a lot of love and humor in this book. Grossman continues to play with many of the structures of fantasy and coming-of-age stories in smart and mature ways. But the overarching lessons can be just as harsh as in the first book. If The Magicians was a book for the college set, The Magician King is for the new worker, truly out in the real world, asking “what now?” It’s a wonderful book, and I can’t wait to read Grossman’s next.