In Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater — a geeky fantasy-loving high school senior — has his life turned upside down when he is invited to take an entrance exam for Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. After spending years learning the craft, and some time outside of school in a Bret Easton Ellis novel kind of existence, life is turned around again when he and several of his newfound magician friends discover that Fillory — the magical setting of a series of beloved children’s books (think Narnia and you’ve got it) — is real. And they can go there.
“Real” is a key word in The Magicians and in Grossman’s follow-up, The Magician King. Fillory, it turns out, is more “real” than people might want; it has all the ills — the violence, the death, the ugliness, the terror — that the real world does and that were left out of the children’s book version of the world. The regular old non-Fillory world that Quentin moves through, despite the presence of magic, is also “real.” Your problems don’t disappear with the ability to cast spells. You still have to get a job, you can still have screwed-up relationships, you can still get hangovers, people can still die. All your dreams can come true, but in the real world, some dreams are nightmares. Some dreams you’d rather wake up from.
I said in my review of The Magicians that I thought Grossman was trying to tightly tie together a fantasy novel and a literary realism novel, to blend the two genres seamlessly in a way that is rarely done. Plot- and setting-wise, we’re usually in a fantasy world start to finish, or we have two worlds and a portal between them but the two are wholly separate. One tends to be story-driven, one character-driven. In fantasy we’re often given types or are focused more on characters’ actions, while in literary realism we’re given the life of the interior mind and focused more on personal and interpersonal conflict (yes, these are generalizations — hold your indignant examples of exceptions). This bifurcation isn’t the case in Grossman’s universe. And because he throws those worlds together, he can also give us a lot of meta-discussion on the role of fantasy in life (not to mention a slew of terrifically fun allusions to try and catch). It’s a great concept, even if I thought The Magicians only partly succeeded. The failure in my mind wasn’t one of conception or theme, but rather pacing and balance. Another problem is that it is really tough to create a character full of ennui and adolescent angst and not drive your reader a bit crazy.
Happily, none of those problems are present in The Magician King, which is going on my early list of top ten fantasy novels of the year. In just about every way, it is a better book than The Magicians, repeating the first book’s strengths of characterization, concept, and style and improving in those areas The Magicians was a bit weak in. It is the work of an author more confident in both his material and his craft.
It begins with Quentin and his three friends from book one — Eliot, Janet, and Julie — ruling as the kings and queens of Fillory. As Mel Brooks famously said, “it’s good to be king.” You get good food, great service, nice rooms, and lots of leisure time (especially in a kingdom that requires little administration). Despite that, Quentin, whom one would think is living his dream — literally living in his fantasy world — isn’t happy. He realizes this when an adventure presents itself to him early on when the four are chasing after the Seeing Hare (aka the White Stag from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe):
He was restless. He was looking for something else. He didn’t know what it was… He wanted to stick his finger in it and see what happened. Some story, some quest, started here and he wanted to go on it. It felt fresh and clean and unsafe, nothing like the heavy warm lard of palace life. The protective plastic wrap had been peeled off.
Quentin passes on that adventure, but he eventually takes on another one, to sail to the Outer Island (aka the Lone Islands of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader); which leads to yet another one, to find seven golden keys which may just be essential to saving not just Fillory but magic itself. He’s joined on the way by Julie, who has gotten stranger and more remote over time; Bingle, the winner of the Best Swordsperson of Fillory tournament; Benedict, a surly teenage cartographer promoted to “field agent” by Quentin because he reminds him of his younger self; and one of the Talking Beasts, a sloth who actually talks very little.
We get several stories in The Magician King. One is a basic adventure story and it’s a lot of fun, with twists and turns and inventive settings, situations, and creatures which I don’t want to spoil by naming examples. The original fantasy elements have a true sense of wonder, while the borrowed/tweaked ones make the novel a joyful scavenger hunt of glittering allusions that never fail to bring a smile as you unearth them. Another story, told via staggered flashback chapters, belongs to Julie. It tells how she got her powers (she failed the entrance exam to Brakebills) and how she ended up with the others in Fillory. This plot line is much darker and more personal, a coming of age story for a young woman who has to fight her way through depression and obsession and who achieves her dream but, similar to Quentin in book one, at some cost. Because this storyline is broken up, and is less focused on general teen angst (Julia has actual cause for her anger and depression), cynicism, and privileged ennui then Quentin’s similar “how I got my magic and grew up” storyline from The Magicians, it is nowhere near as off-putting. And it becomes darkly, tragically compelling by its end.
The third storyline is the threat to Fillory and to magic itself, which reveals some surprising information about the nature of magic and explores myth and religion as well. As one might expect, the storylines converge at the end, though I think in ways that most people will not see coming, at least not for the vast majority of the novel.
Precise, fluid prose, smooth pacing, and crisp dialogue combine to sweep you effortlessly along; I read it in a single sitting quite happily. The melding/blurring of reality and fantasy, besides being a theme of the novel (most of the characters face a choice — possibly false — between the real world and the fantasy world) keeps the reader on his/her toes, persistently breaking our readerly expectations at the most basic level of the sentence, something I found constantly stimulating. The reference to the “protective plastic wrap” above is one such example, along with people performing magic on their iPhones, using GPS, or improving a “classic” spell by using Google Street View.
Characterization is consistently sharp and full, even for the secondary characters such as Benedict, Bingle, and yes, even the sloth. Julia grows the most, simply because we see her over a greater stretch of time, but both main characters make significant personal journeys to parallel their geographic ones. And these journeys feel and are presented as the real awakening from adolescence to adulthood. Here is Quentin at one point:
He’d known that adventures were supposed to be hard. He’d understood that he would have to go a long way and solve difficult problems and fight foes and be brave… But this was hard in a way he hadn’t counted on. You couldn’t kill it with a sword or fix it with a spell. You couldn’t fight it. You just had to endure it, and you didn’t look good or noble or heroic doing it… It didn’t make a good story… He wasn’t ready for it.
Welcome to life, Quentin.
Along with the coming-of-age theme, the novel plumbs a lot of real-world questions: What does it mean to be happy? Can we ever be happy? When do we stop “becoming” who we are and can just be who we are? Do we ever? What makes a hero? How far should we seek our limits and once we find them, are we bound by them? Should we be? What responsibilities come with power? What is this need for fantasy that seems to be embedded in our consciousness — what are its benefits, its pitfalls?
The Magician King isn’t flawless. How magic works in our world is still a bit fuzzy, I think. It seems to me as if the magic here is like adding a drop or two of red food coloring to water and rather than having the water change color we end up with water and one or two drops of red. One character pretty much disappears (not any great loss at all). And there may be one or two other small flaws. But they are really minor complaints and hardly worth mentioning.
Is The Magician King a “fantasy book for grown-ups”? You know it’ll get called that at some point, as did Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (which The Magician King feels a bit akin to — funnier, geekier, but without the richness of language and style) but the term makes me wince due to its obvious implication that fantasy isn’t for grownups (I’d actually say if you can’t enjoy fantasy your growth is stunted, but that’s just me). But I might call it a “grown-up fantasy book”: self-aware, sophisticated, thoughtful, confident, skilled and professional. Or I might just call it a great book and leave it at that. A must-read.
At the end of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Brakebills graduate Quentin Coldwater abandoned a cushy but dead-end insecure job to become co-ruler of the magical land of Fillory with his former classmates Eliot and Janet and his erstwhile flame Julia. I absolutely loved the drama of that final scene, with Eliot, Janet and Julia hovering thirty stories up in the air and shattering Quentin’s office window to drag him along on this new adventure.
The Magicians left lots of questions unanswered. How did Julia meet Eliot and Janet, and how exactly did she get so strong? What happened to Josh? Or Penny, for that matter? What was actually going on with the whole Neitherlands setup? Is it just a coincidence that it resembled a huge version of a welters board? (Or more likely the other way round: is the welters board meant to look like a small Neitherlands grid?) And what, most importantly, were these four disaffected young magicians thinking, installing themselves as the rulers of Narnia, sorry, Fillory? As much as I loved The Magicians for presenting a solid stand-on-its-own story, it was at the same time practically begging for a sequel. Thank goodness it’s finally here.
At the start of The Magician King, Quentin, Janet, Eliot and Julia are comfortably set up as the kings and queens of Fillory, with Eliot the nominal High King. They lead the leisurely lives of figurehead royalty, eating and drinking luxuriously, going on the occasional royal hunt, waving to the populace from the balcony of their palace. They’re basically lazing around and enjoying themselves. The only thing that proves to be lacking in their lives as the rulers of a magical utopia proves to be, well, a challenge. Or as Quentin realizes, somewhat counter-intuitively in the first chapter of the novel:
Being king wasn’t the beginning of the story, it was the end. […] This was the happily ever after part. Close the book, put it down, walk away.
Meanwhile, Julia has amped up her goth appearance and become increasingly quiet and mysterious. She’s “gone native” and, Quentin notes, seems to have given up using contractions altogether. Something has happened to her, something that left her powerful but damaged. Quentin wonders how expensive her education was, and it’s clear that he’s not thinking of the cost in terms of a monetary value.
Eventually, Quentin realizes that all this lying around isn’t exactly what he had in mind when he relocated to the magical realm of Fillory, so he jumps at the first chance to do something semi-meaningful: he will conduct an expedition to Outer Island, a tiny and remote speck-on-the-map, predominantly inhabited by fishermen who haven’t paid their taxes for a while. It’s clear that the taxes aren’t really what’s important here — after all, Fillory is a land of hyperabundance and the only problem with its economy is a chronic shortage of actual shortages. Quentin is just itching to do something heroic, and if that involves refitting a ship (the Muntjac) and setting out to talk to some yokels about their back taxes, at least it also includes an exciting sea voyage and some new horizons.
So Quentin sets out on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Muntjac, accompanied by a sullen apprentice cartographer named Benedict, the best swordsman in the realm (who goes by the unlikely name of Bingle), a talking sloth, and the ever-mysterious Julia. This journey will take them to the one place you’d least suspect — at least if you haven’t read the plot summary on the inside flap of the novel — and eventually to a quest that, yes, will determine the very fate of Fillory….
If you loved The Magicians as much as I did, you’ll probably be pleased with The Magician King. Yes, the novelty has worn off a bit, but in exchange you get a story that’s actually more structured and more obviously working its way towards a solid finale than the first novel’s. It’s a proper adventure, really, although as you’d probably expect there are some false starts, detours and roundabouts along the way. You’ll also get answers to some of the questions that were left unanswered in The Magicians, but new questions pop up to take their place. I wish authors did requests, because I now have a list of possible subjects for future stories that could expand on things that are only hinted at here. At one point, a character throws out the idea of inverse profundity — “The deeper you go into the cosmic mysteries, the less interesting everything gets.” I haven’t experienced that yet with these books. Quite the opposite, really.
The most noticeable change in The Magician King is that Julia takes over the spotlight for a good chunk of the novel. Once Lev Grossman has set up Quentin’s quest, roughly every other chapter starts filling in Julia’s story, recounting what happened to her between her failed entrance exam at Brakebills and the final scene of The Magicians. The good news is that she’s a fascinating character and that her storyline adds a whole new dimension to this fantasy universe. The bad news, at least for people who groused about the mopiness and general “insanely privileged but still too myopic to be happy” quality of people like Quentin and Eliot, is that Julia is, well, like that, too. Sort of. To be fair, her depression seems to be more of the chemical imbalance variety, rather than Quentin’s all-purpose teenage angst. More importantly (and fortunately) she’s got the gumption to actually do something about what’s lacking in her life. She picks herself up and finds her way into an underground scene for people who want to learn magic but didn’t make it into Brakebills. (Lev Grossman also put me out of my misery by finally throwing in a very welcome reference. Julia always reminded me of someone, but I could never put my finger on it, and now I finally know who it was: Fairuza Balk’s character in The Craft.) By the time Julia’s and Quentin’s plots converge, you’ll have answers to several questions, but again, also many new ones. Julia’s storyline is what makes The Magician King a great book.
Meanwhile, Quentin is on his quest, and in the process finds out all sorts of fascinating things about the nature of the Neitherlands, the current whereabouts of some of his other friends, and the origins of magic. For much of the novel, the entire quest seems to be one gigantic red herring. Quentin often has the feeling that he’s in a fantasy novel, just not a proper one. At one point, he hilariously realizes that it’s very hard to deliver his lines without sounding like a Monty Python skit. At other times, he feels like he’s improvising in a play to which everyone has the script, or like he might be a minor character in someone else’s story. He also feels the acute lack of a soundtrack during combat scenes. (At that point, I couldn’t help thinking of another movie: A Knight’s Tale, with its rock soundtrack that provided such a jarring but effective contrast with what was actually happening on screen. Both of these novels often create a literary version of that type of cognitive dissonance, e.g. when someone uses Google Street View to pinpoint the exact location for a magical portal, or uses magic to jailbreak an iPhone.)
The Magician King is a deceptively cheerful book, because even if it all seems like a lark for Quentin early on, there’s a darker undercurrent right from the beginning. Regardless, it’s again a highly entertaining book to read because it’s filled with cultural references, from Shakespeare to video games and, of course, lots of fantasy. There are so many of these that the prose practically sparkles with possible points of contact for the larger geek culture out there. Grossman also sets up several scenes perfectly, leading you to expect something to happen, only to find out that you’re having the rug pulled out from under you, sometimes in a way that’s truly, horribly shocking. I fell for these hook, line and sinker. Be warned, gentle reader.
If you loved The Magicians, you probably don’t need much convincing to check out this sequel. Yes, it’s a very different book: the whole Harry Potter shtick is basically gone, Quentin has gained some welcome confidence, Julia is front and center. At the same time, it riffs on the same themes and ideas that made The Magicians so good, and it adds some layers to the story and the fantasy universe. Some of these don’t exactly line up for me yet, but maybe all will be explained in another sequel? There’d better be another book in this series, because dammit, I want more.
Quentin Coldwater returns and he is now both a magician of Earth and a king of Fillory, Lev Grossman’s version of Narnia. Quentin is in search of a quest, the one that’s for him and him alone, and it doesn’t take long for him to find it.
It also doesn’t take long for Quentin to begin wryly reflecting on the world around him, and Grossman can hardly resist either. Between them, Lev and Quentin manage to make allusions to just about every nerdy, geeky, suburban aspect of North American life that Grossman thinks his audience can think of, ranging from iPhones to D&D to John Knowles’ A Separate Peace. Keeping up on these inside jokes can get a little tiresome, but who are we to scoff at something that clearly brings Grossman so much satisfaction?
Besides, this self-aware atmosphere allows Grossman a lot of freedoms — ones that few fantasy writers enjoy. For example, Fillory allows Grossman to create impressive high fantasy moments, such as Quentin’s hunt for the Seeing Hare, a Unique Beast that will foretell the future (death and despair, unfortunately). However, Grossman is also able to describe swords and sorcery using the parlance of our times. Everyone will have their own favorite line, but mine might have been “if you’re enough a power nerd, there is nothing that cannot be flowcharted,” not even comparative religion studies. Even Quentin, who dresses like a king of the Renaissance, looks at the people in Fillory and wonders “what it was like to be so unselfconsciously melodramatic. Nice, probably.”
However, if a clever, amusing voice were the only thing driving The Magician King, it would surely be received as a disappointment. Instead, Grossman demonstrates that he has honed his fantasy chops. Critics will find it difficult to simply label The Magician King as “Harry Potter for adults” as they did with its predecessor. There’s just too much plot, and readers will almost certainly enjoy reading a clever rendition of their favorite trope, whether it be dragons, trickster deities, or even a brief war of the gods. Grossman has done his homework, and it shows. Even the sword dueling is quite impressive.
Clearly, Grossman has matured, and I think it’s fair to say his protagonist has as well. Quentin’s ennui about the world was appropriate for The Magicians, but would have felt a little strained here. Now, Quentin’s reflections are less prone to clever whining and more akin to intelligent epiphanies. When Quentin attempts to learn to use a sword, he finds it difficult and reflects “that was the thing about the world: it wasn’t that things were harder than you thought they were going to be, it was that they were hard in ways that you didn’t expect.” Well said, Quentin.
The Magician King is a very enjoyable fantasy, one that is sure to impress fans of The Magicians and that will also hopefully satisfy Lev Grossman’s detractors. It’s clear that he has the potential to become one of the best authors SFF has to offer.
I’m not a big fan of post-modernism. I realize that saying that and going on to review a Lev Grossman novel is a little bit like ordering a mai tai and then complaining because it’s got rum in it, but I’m going to anyway. The review, I mean, not the mai tai.
The Magician King is the sequel to Grossman’s highly successful fantasy novel The Magicians, and follows four young Americans who graduated from a magical school in up-state New York, had adventures (kind of ) and are now kings and queens of an alternate realm called Fillory. Any resemblance to the plot of The Chronicles of Narnia is purely intentional. The Magician King is marketed as Book Two of a trilogy, but there’s always the risk that Grossman will become drunk with celebrity and try for a “septimology,” to match the series he is attempting to deconstruct.
Postmodernism believes that interpretation is everything; that reality is personal, or at best, societally agreed-to. It is skeptical of any form that postulates a universal truth. In literature, postmodernism is probably best at dissecting how stories tell us what they tell us. Grossman turns the lens of postmodernism and its stylistic tools, ironic distance, self-reference, and constant pop-cultural references, on the modern fantasy story in these two books.
I was one of a tiny minority who didn’t care for The Magicians, not because of what Grossman was trying to do, but because the characters were boring. The Magician King held my interest much better, in part because Grossman moved to the type of story I like (the quest) but also because nearly half the book focuses on an interesting character whose experience of magic is a contrast to that of the “magic school” graduates, Eliot, Janet and the viewpoint character, Quentin.
Quentin, Janet and Eliot matriculated at Brakebills, an exclusive magic school – think Ivy League. When The Magicians ended, they had magically flown off to be the kings and queens of Fillory, a realm described in a set of popular children’s books that turned out to be not so imaginary, but very magical. They were joined by Julia, a friend of Quentin, who had failed the entrance exam of Brakebills. Julia had become a more powerful magician than any of them, but turned very strange in the process.
Why four thrones? No reason, except that the author of the “Fillory” novels gave that country four thrones, but the real reason is because Narnia did, and Narnia is the land Grossman has put under the microscope. Fillory has talking animals and magical ships. What is doesn’t have is a set of characters representing Ultimate Good and Ultimate Evil. Instead of a God/Christ figure like Aslan, Fillory’s resident god is Ember, a ram. Not to put too fine a point on it, their god is a sheep.
When The Magician King opens, Quentin, who is bored (his usual state) decides to go on a quest to the Outer Island. Julia says she will go with him. The trip is a disappointment, but on the way back, Quentin, who had heard about a golden key that winds the world, orders his ship to change course and goes to search for it. The result becomes a real quest, with real problems and real consequences. Along the way, the reader discovers more about Julia’s path to magic.
What is magic? For those of us who read fantasy, magic is often a metaphor for art, personal effectiveness, or power. Sometimes it is a form of connection. In the Narnia series, magic imbued the land. It was a resource; an unapologetically spiritual one. Grossman seems more interested in what we are told magic will do for us in fantasy stories. The Magician King starts off with a king who is bored and unnecessary. Fillory has two kings and two queens but doesn’t really need them because there isn’t very much to do. A magician in our world (which Quentin still calls “the real world”) has access to great wealth, but it doesn’t look any different than hedge-fund management or software development. Any one of Grossman’s characters could be Mark Zuckerberg, and that is intentional. Is magic just a skill set, like being good at math or learning languages? Or is it something more? Quentin senses that it is something more, but he isn’t sure what.
The ritual he’d done to ramp up his senses was actually working: he was so wired, he could feel where people were through the walls – he could sense the electricity in their bodies, the way a shark does. Time, that dull mechanism that usually reliably stamped out one second after another, like parts on a conveyor belt, erupted into a glorious melody. He was getting it all back now, everything he’d missed and more.
Julia sees magic as the manipulation of energy, and her experiences include the physical manifestation of energy; her magical partners feel the air change around them as a spell takes hold.
When Quentin and Julia go to Brakebills for help, Quentin is quickly disillusioned by his old headmaster, seeing him through new eyes.
… He really couldn’t believe the awe in which he used to hold this man. The towering Gandalfian wizard he once cowered before had been swapped out and replaced with a smug hidebound bureaucrat.
While the entitled, clueless Quentin was being coddled and protected at Brakebills, cutting classes and getting drunk with Eliot and Janet, Julia was walking on the wild side, learning from trial and error (mostly error); sinking deeper and deeper into depression, trying to turn away from magic, never quite escaping it, never quite capturing it. Julia is a brilliant obsessive, and it’s hard to imagine a better prerequisite for wizard-hood. Part of The Magician King seems to be about deciding which technique, bureaucratic academia or anarchic obsession, is better. Because the consequences of Julia’s exploration were devastating for her and potentially catastrophic for the world, hidebound and bureaucratic seems to win by default. Julia’s experience, however, seems more authentic than Quentin’s.
Quentin’s other lesson is about being a hero. He has a modern view of the hero as the guy who wins. When he encounters the dragon that lives in the Venetian estuary (the dragon is more of a plot device than a character, but it is a great plot device) the dragon tells him that a hero must be prepared to lose everything. Quentin replies that he has already lost everything. In this, as in most things, Quentin is wrong.
I have a lot of quibbles with this book, just as I did with The Magicians. Janet disappears from the story by page 45. The price Julia pays in her quest for knowledge, while it is a cliché, is the right choice in this case, but it ignores the most obvious consequence of this type of encounter with a god, without explanation. Poppy is inconsistent and unnecessary; determined to go back to Earth no matter what when Quentin asks her to stay, but agreeing to stay in Fillory at the end for no reason except that the plot needs her to. It is probably not coincidental that all of these problems are with women characters. At the end of the book, Grossman has an item appear conveniently when the plot needs it (“How’d that get there?”) without explanation. It isn’t fair to deconstruct magic and then use “magic” as the excuse when it suits the plot’s purposes.
On the other hand, there is Grossman’s prose. It shines here. It’s astute, grounded and quirky. Here is a description of Quentin’s room in Castle Whitespire:
It had been literally centuries since all four of Whitespire’s thrones had been filled at the same time and in the meantime the extra royal suites had been invaded and occupied by creeping armies of candelabras, defunct chandeliers listing and deflated like beached jellyfish, unplayable musical instruments, unreturnable diplomatic gifts, chairs and tables so piteously ornamental they would break if you looked at them, or even if you didn’t, dead animals ruthlessly stuffed in the very act of begging for mercy, urns and ewers and other even less easily identifiable vessels that you didn’t know whether to drink out of or go to the bathroom in.
I don’t know if I agree with Grossman’s answers in The Magician King, but I like his questions, and I like Quentin’s growth as the book ends. I am looking forward to the third book in this irritating and engaging series.
The Magicians — (2009-2011) Publisher: Quentin Coldwater’s life is changed forever by an apparently chance encounter: when he turns up for his entrance interview to Princeton he finds his interviewer dead — but a strange envelope bearing Quentin’s name leads him down a very different path to any he’d ever imagined. The envelope, and the mysterious manuscript it contains, leads to a secret world of obsession and privilege, a world of freedom and power and, for a while, it’s a world that seems to answer all Quentin’s desires. But the idyll cannot last — and when it’s finally shattered, Quentin is drawn into something darker and far more dangerous than anything he could ever have expected…