Book Review: The Magician King

magician king Lev Grossman’s The MagiciansBook Review: The Magician King posed the question “What if your childhood fantasy turned out to be real?” Quentin Coldwater had always been obsessed with magic, and particularly with Fillory, a Narnia-like land from a series of Narnia-like kids books. Well, it turned out that a world full of magic is a lot less romantic than Quentin imagined.

Replete with nods to Hogwarts and various other fantasy worlds, Grossman ushered his characters through the years at Brakebills, an elite private school for Magicians. There, the students grappled with more than just magic. Love, sex, drugs, disenchantment – all the innumerable pangs of young adulthood were every bit as challenging as mastering a new enchantment.

And when Fillory itself turned out to be real, it was nothing like the books. Magic, we discover, is a violent and dangerous thing.

This is largely the theme of Grossman’s second book The Magician KingBook Review: The Magician King, an even more haunting tale than the first. Quentin and friends are now kings and queens of Fillory, a land that has no need for kings and queens. It does, however, have a need for heroes. Magic may have been a grand accident, and it may be in trouble.

So begins one of two adventures that comprise The Magician King. Quentin’s quest to find the seven golden keys is a swashbuckling voyage across worlds and oceans, full of mythical creatures and magical islands. The second adventure is more down to earth, and it’s not Quentin’s. His childhood friend, Julia, didn’t pass the Brakebills entrance exam in the first novel, but she shows up a fully trained witch at the end of the book.

The Magician King is largely Julia’s story. We learn about the underground magic scene, the safe-houses where amateur wizards and witches come to learn parlor tricks and trade secrets. We follow Julia’s downward spiral of depression and obsession and pain to its dark conclusion.

Grossman’s storytelling here is masterful. He binds Quentin’s quest and Julia’s own journey into darkness together in surprising, troubling ways.

Still, Julia’s story is violent and dark almost to a fault. Grossman is tackling heavy material here, with profound implications about religion, society, and the role of women in contemporary fantasy. At moments it feels like he uses a battle-axe where he should be using a scalpel. Theology and sexual violence and the dark, deep gods of folklore permeate Julia’s story. Throughout the book Julia is broken. By the end of it we learn why. I’m still not sure that magic can save her.

Quentin and Julia are both on quests much deeper and more profound than magic keys or magical salvation.  They are out to find meaning in a world of apathy and abundance. In the real world, Julia’s family is loving, well-off, her college and career prospects rich. Fillory is a post-scarcity Utopia, where Quentin should have everything his heart desires. And yet, with all this – and magic, too – neither has managed to find happiness.

On the other side of the rabbit hole is more pain than either bargained for or knows how to handle. Underscoring much of the magic in The Magician King is the knowledge that a deeper, more threatening magic looms just beneath everything our heroes know and love, threatening to pull the rug out from under them entirely. To be a hero, Quentin discovers, is to lose everything.

And yet, one wonders if saving Fillory, if saving magic, is really such a good idea. The real world beckons, with all its own problems and adventures. Magic might just be a tragic sideshow after all, with consequences far too real to be fantasy.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Magician King

  1. I don’t want to fill this all up, but I’m also not sure if others will jump in.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I found the old gods plot incredibly clunky. They’re there, but they’re not really all that menacing because we don’t really see them do anything in particular. Then there’s the key MacGuffins, and then everything is fine. It’s a very weird way to handle a plot element, even if it gives him the excuse to do some great drawing of characters on top of that canvas.

    Of course, I also don’t really believe they’re gone, per se, and Asmodeus is a giant screaming loose end, so maybe these complaints won’t really matter after the third book. Still, I feel like this book didn’t do what I needed it to do.

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    • I wonder if the keys were more of a statement about magic quests than a plot element – more of a critique of this sort of plot element than anything else, and this is why we spend so much more time drawing out the characters. The old gods, I suspect, are not gone.

      And yes, the old old gods were a bit clunky here. The folkloric gods, however, were done with quite a bit more skill.

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