The Magician King is the second installment in The Magicians, a New York Times bestselling series by Lev Grossman. Equally as impressive as its precursor, The Magician King continues the journey of the young but now white-haired magician Quentin, a recent graduate of Brakebills – an exclusive and secret college for the most brilliant minds who also exhibit a proclivity for sorcery. Anyone can learn magic, but Brakebills only selects the finest from each year’s pool of Ivy League collegiate candidates. Plume | June, 2012 | Paperback | 400 pp
Although you could read this book without having read the first, I wouldn’t necessarily consider The Magician King as a standalone novel. Quentin has gone through too much character development in the first book and without that knowledge, the reader would be a little lost without fully understanding all that stands behind Quentin’s line of reasoning. The setting itself would be a bit of a conundrum. But I’m pretty certain I can summarize the first book without giving away the big spoilers.
In the first book, Quentin Coldwater, a slightly juvenile but brilliant high school student, is delighted when he discovers that magic is real and he has been chosen to attend Brakebills, a super-secret academy for the magical arts. He puts aside his Ivy League aspirations and matriculates at Brakebills, but by the end he is bored again – until he discovers that Fillory (Narnia-inspired), a fictional land from his favorite book series, is real. When he and his friends venture to this other world, it isn’t the glorious, easy adventure that he imagined it would be. There is terror, death, and great loss. The book ends with Quentin as a broken man, but with a silver lining on the horizon.
In The Magician King, Quentin had returned to Fillory to take his seat as a king along with three of his friends. In Fillory, just as in Narnia, there must be two human kings and two human queens. Elliot and Janet, his Brakebills peers are two, but the fourth is Julia – his old high school chum, the one who was rejected from the Brakebills’ entrance exam. Unlike the first book where we read from Quentin’s POV only, this book alternates between Quentin’s present and Julia’s past.
It’s been a while since the first book ended, and Quentin has mostly healed. Plus, he is a king of Fillory and it’s been an easy life of royal luxury. But his old issues of wanting more come to a forefront when faced with a possible quest. He brings Julia along for the ride and pretty soon he gets what he asked for – a quest to save magic itself. The Gods are returning, and they are coming back to take away all magic which will mean the end of Fillory. To save not only Fillory but countless other worlds and their ability to access magic, Quentin is on a quest to find seven golden keys, a quest leading him to the very edge of the world of Fillory.
Edge of the world? Seven golden keys? The homage to Narnia continues! Instead of the Dawn Treader, our heroes ride the high seas on the Muntjac and instead of seeking the seven lost lords of Narnia, they’re searching for seven golden keys, the keys to open – sorry, you’ll have to read the book. Best yet, just as in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – there are dragons. But this being a recent adult series, there are more differences than there are similarities such as the inclusion of Internet, sex, drugs, violence, raping gods, and Teletubbies. Yes – Teletubbies.
After all Quentin had been through in the first book, his tendency toward wanting more comes back to bite him in the arse once again. The reader learns along with Quentin that it isn’t going to be as easy as it was in the cherished books from childhood, but we still root for him as Quentin is given his first quest. He wants to be the hero. When Quentin feels lost, the reader feels connected – Grossman deals a major play with metafiction. It’s almost as if the reader is playing a part – we can see what Quentin cannot and for us, he’s become a real, live character who is living the dream in his brand of Narnia just for our eyes. He can’t seem to understand that everything he has gone through IS the adventure he was looking for – it just happened to take him to a world he didn’t imagine. While Quentin thought he was missing the adventure, the reader was living it.
Julia is not unlike Quentin, but she has her own story. Like Quentin, real life is not good enough and she goes searching for her own glory. After being rejected by Brakebills, her life had fallen apart. She shouldn’t have remembered the test, but the memory charm they cast on her failed. She remembered, and it nearly drove her crazy. But she found magic on her own and entered an underworld of seedy magic and a sketchy street-education system. She was eventually accepted into a small family of advanced, self-taught magicians where she finally felt like she belonged. It is here where they theorized upon the origins of magic.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Turn it around. What is advanced magic indistinguishable from? Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from the miraculous.”
Julia’s attempt to contact the divine has a direct bearing on her current quest with Quentin. Julia’s mistake, gods and goddesses in all forms, dragons, magical beasts of all levels (there is a hierarchy!), and a secret order that controls the architecture of magic converge upon Quentin’s great quest. The question is, will Quentin do what he can to be the hero?
There are so many facets to this novel that I loved: the way all gods, major and minor, had capitalized pronouns for reference (it’s the little things!), how Julia’s recent back story is entwined with Quentin’s quest, the similarities to our beloved Narnia series of course, the adult nature and the naughty comic relief that comes just at the right time, but most of all I loved how Grossman was able to make the reader feel like a player. This is metafiction at its finest.
It’s not as if the reader is mentioned such as in The Neverending Story, but Grossman cries out to us in ways that makes us feel like we have a part. And it’s all because we are Quentin. He’s the guy who is living our dream, and he enters a world that had only been open to us in books, only open to readers. And so, in this strange way, being a reader feels like being a character.
You just can’t miss this opportunity. Pick up the series.
The Magician King
by Lev Grossman