Lev Grossman’s The Magicians 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 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.