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In Fillory, the magical land of children’s literature and the kingdom of Lev Grossman’s spell-casting slackers in The Magician King, things are starting to go off the rails. Clock-trees are waving their branches wildly, the Seeing Hare is playing hard to get and the Master of the Hunt drops dead in the middle of a soft green grassy circle, heavy with enchantments, in the woods.
The Magician King picks up some time after Grossman’s first fantasy, The Magicians, leaves off. Quentin Coldwater is one of the four Kings and Queens of Fillory as The Magician King begins and he thinks he’s landed in a cushy spot. Although, in typical Quentin fashion, he’s beginning to get just a tiny bit bored with his perfect life. His fellow royals, Eliot and Janet from Brakebills, the magicians college on the Hudson where the three learned their stuff, and Julia, an old high school friend who didn’t get into Brakebills and acquired her magic where she could find it, contemplate the disturbing signs of magical unraveling and agree to a Quest.
The fantasy, a grown-up pastiche of J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis and some very Grimm tales, sets sail on a charmed ship in search of answers and adventure. Our hero—still no dashing Lancelot—discovers he is looking for a golden key. Eventually there will be seven golden keys. But not before Quentin and Julia reach the Outer Island, meet a child who draws them scribbled passports they later find useful, locate and try a key with dizzying, disastrous results, continue their quest back in the Earth world, revisit Brakebills to no real benefit, steal some cars, hack an ATM, mess with disenchantments at a magnificent palazzo in Venice and learn about the dissolution of magic and the heroics it will take to save it.
Quentin is less of a jerk in this second half of what is really one long coming-of-age story split into two books. He exhibits some heartening maturity and altruism, along with his burning obsession to find the key to meaning in his own life. His evolution and the rich imaginative world Grossman builds around him make this a much more satisfying read than the first book. There is still an alarming tendency to imbibe hangover-inducing amounts of alcohol as daily fuel and unmagical humans—AKA family—are sloughed off with minimal concern and consequence. Events follow the predictable story template: just when things are staring to look better, they get worse. A lot worse.
The storyline for Julia weaves in and out in alternate chapters and we learn how she acquired her magic—none of it is remotely pretty. Death and defeat are as ugly as they come in this fairytale. The scenes are salted with arcane bits of erudition that lend them authenticity and show Grossman did his homework, a lot of really strong research. But the book seems slightly long and the adventures pale as they double back on themselves in loops of endless action and reaction that start to blur together. This might be a book to savor slowly, over several days, rather than power through in one.
I liked The Magician King far more than its prequel. Grossman has built a convincing world, if a graceless and sour one. His hero grows up and sacrifices himself to save some of the others. Quentin is left sadder, wiser and more hopeful by his quest. But, despite his admirable gestures, and all the powerful magic that slips through, and from, the hands of the Fillory royals and their companions, there isn’t much there there in the end. The magicians are an intelligent and egocentric lot and remain true to form. They are alienated from their roots, their surroundings and each other—it’s still all about them. The magical and mundane realms of Grossman’s books are bleakly existential. They offer a downbeat escape into fantasy for a reader whose sunny life is in need of a few contrasting shadows. The travails of this Quest are not so much an antidote to the gloom, angst and despair of the barren landscape we already inhabit.
The Magician King: A Novel Lev Grossman | Viking 2011