The Magician King by Lev Grossman. Viking, 2011.
The Magician King is the sequel to The Magicians, which I reviewed here. There will be spoilers.
I will start by saying that I enjoyed this book much more than the first. In my review of the first book, I mentioned how I was disappointed in the disillusionment of the characters that resulted in a fantasy world which left much to be desired in the way of allure and “magic.” However, I figured this contributed to the purpose of the series as a complication of the escapist nature of the fantasy genre, and I was right. In the second book, Fillory finally does seem more magical and escapist, a quality which becomes yet again problematic by the end. The second book was more developed altogether in terms of world and character building. It also had much tighter plots that tied together nicely, as opposed to the first book, which I think tried to accomplish too much with too many characters and two separate worlds.
The chapters of The Magician King alternate between the current situation in Fillory – Quentin’s quest to find seven golden keys that will save the world – and Julia’s backstory of how she came to learn a mysterious alternate form of magic different than the disciplined form Quentin learned at Brakebills. Julia’s chapters were by far the better of the two. I found her story to be very compelling; she traverses the underground world of magic as practiced by those who never got to study at a real magician school. She eventually becomes part of an elite group accomplished in this crude, yet extremely powerful spellwork. This group of troubled intellectuals decide they want to dive even deeper into their study to find magic’s very origin – gods who have the power to wield the most powerful magic in existence.
They end up biting off more than they can chew – their attempt to summon a particular god who they believe will teach them her powers goes awry, and who they summon instead is Reynard the Fox, a folkloric trickster god who proceeds to massacre the entire group and rape Julia and remove her soul. You read that correctly. The scene was intense, graphic, and disturbing. But it was so expertly written that it solidified my high opinion of the book. It was one of the best climactic scenes I’ve ever read. Of course it’s difficult to say that one “enjoys” reading a scene like that, but it was so well written, I cannot remember another book in recent memory that made my heart pound as hard as that…and when any book does that to you, you cannot help but feel a sort of “enjoyment” at that book’s ability to affect you.
Quentin’s chapters create a stark juxtaposition to Julia’s. Quentin’s Fillory quest, when paired up against Julia’s Earth story, seems so trivial. He must find the legendary Seven Golden Keys, which will apparently save Fillory in some unexplained way. Quentin continues to struggle with needing fantastical adventures in order to feel any sense of purpose or self-worth, which comes off as tiresome because he clearly should have learned that lesson from the last book. This Fillorian adventure seems superfluous when set up against what Julia is going through back on Earth. HOWEVER, Grossman manages to reconcile this by making both plot lines converge by the end – turns out the whole gods-being-the-origin-of-magic thing has everything to do with the problem Fillory is having.
The other thing Grossman does beautifully is pull from fantasy literary tradition. This series is so self-aware of its genre and uses elements from so many seminal works of fantasy, all the way back to medieval folklore. The series is just so…smart. It reeks of intellect without sounding too pretentious. Grossman is a graduate of both Harvard and Yale, surprise surprise. It shows. In the best way possible, it makes the blurbs true about the series turning “the machinery of fantasy inside out.” Definitely a must-read for fans of the fantasy tradition (and for this book in particular, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).
Now I have just started the third and final book in the series, The Magician’s Land. Hopes for the end of the series? 1. That Quentin finally has a change in character and shows some true growth, 2. more Elliot, and 3. an ending that gives a sense of satisfaction and achievement without being too “happy” or cliché. I definitely don’t think Grossman would have written a cliché ending, but my opinion of book 3 will definitely be heavily influenced by the way it ends.
As for the second installment, 4/5 stars.