Review: Lev Grossman’s “The Magician King”

Reviewed by Emily Goldsher

The Magician King

By Lev Grossman
Viking, 416 p.

I have to confess, I hadn’t read The Magicians until The Magician King made it into my hands–so my experience of getting to know Quentin, Lev Grossman’s magically-inclined protagonist, was quite rapid and a bit obsessive.  I didn’t suffer the wait between the two books, so I didn’t have to give the first book much thought before undertaking the second.  Still, there is a clear sea change between The Magicians and The Magician King; perhaps it is the passage of Quentin’s adolescence, with his ascension to royalty happening simultaneously with the onset of his strange, but ultimately recognizable, young adulthood.  Regardless, upon opening The Magician King, we are once again adrift in Grossman’s meticulously constructed fantasy, a bizarre plateau somewhere between Less Than Zero and The Chronicles of Narnia

The very first page gave me pause, thinking Grossman had dragged us into full-on Narnia without leaving a way back, but with King Quentin’s quick admission that he is “shit at horseback riding,” we are reminded that Fillory is a darker, more realistic place than C.S. Lewis would have allowed.  The bulk of the trilogy’s second book takes place in Fillory, or is spent blathering on about getting back to Fillory–strangely enough, it is the real world that is the most vibrant this time around, with a mystery and depth (and dragons!) that is magnetic.  Instead of Quentin’s lush descriptions of Brakebills, we are awarded fragments of Julia’s memory: she is broken doll hedge-witch, a girl desperately looking for a place to belong even when she’s convinced she’s found the place that she should belong.

Fillory of The Magician King is particularly soaked in parody, sticking like glue to the Narnia plot, even to the very final–and somewhat predictable–pages.  Talented, dim-witted swordsmen swear their fealty to the kings and queens of Fillory, and talking animals chatter alongside people with ease, but it is the growing pains of Grossman’s characters that show the real magic of the novel.  Quentin and Julia’s quest to return to Fillory, interspersed with bits of Julia’s history, showcases their humanity in technicolor; even the once-dull Josh is now a shining gem.  It is easy to root for Quentin and Julia, but it is difficult to reconcile your affection for them as people with their strange and sometimes stupid plans.  Why struggle to return to Fillory when you can easily live comfortably in New York, or Venice, or anywhere you’d like?  Is it really worth the trouble? Is it really your home?

But Grossman is asking the very same questions of Quentin and Julia.  These are moral issues, questions of whether or not Julia and Quentin deserve the fate they so desperately quest for.  The Magician King’s interest in the morality of magic and the politics of Fillory is more Philip Pullman than J.K. Rowling, a wonderful shift that speaks to Grossman’s ability to write a nuanced series that matures realistically at the pace of its main characters.  With that in mind, I can only imagine the wonders contained within the next installment, one that will hopefully find Quentin a place to call his own.