BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Picking up five years on from The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater finds himself amidst world-changing events that go to the core of Fillory and Earth.
PROS: Strong characters drive this story to surpass the first book in the storyline, The Magicians; epic in scale, this book doesn’t merely continue the story begun in Grossman’s first novel in the series, but grows and builds upon the characters, stories and world that he’s created.
Cons: Some storylines are left a bit unanswered and un-explored, as well as some minor technical elements in the prose.
It’s rare when a book will take me by surprise and really blow me away. It’s even rarer when said book is a sequel to a book that I thought would be impossible to top. Lev Grossman has managed to accomplish this with his latest novel, The Magician King, sequel to his fantastic 2009 novel The Magicians. This book is to its predecessor as The Dark Knight is to Batman Begins, topping the original by miles, and exploring completely new themes and storylines that makes this book one of the best novels that I’ve read so far this year.
The Magician King picks up five years after the events of The Magicians, where we find Quentin and his friends, Eliot, Janet and Julia, settled in the magical, alternate world of Fillory. They comprise the royalty of the world, two kings, and two queens, living in the same sort of aloof holding pattern that they found themselves in after their graduation from Brakebills (except Julia). Despite the quantities of booze, tournaments and well wishes from their subjects, little defines their lives in the kingdom: Quentin is almost unable to take risks and go out on a limb, until the death of a huntsman spurs them out of their slumber.
His thirst for adventure awakened, Quentin jumps on the chance for an excuse to get out and explore: a tiny island (the Outer Island) is delinquent on taxes, and with a boat chartered and a small crew assembled, Julia and Quentin go out to grasp any chance of some excitement. They get more than they bargained for: following a fairy tale of the Seven Golden Keys (one of which is rumored to be located in the islands), they find themselves not in Fillory, but in Massachusetts, the very place they were trying to get away from. The story kicks into overdrive from here, split between Julia’s story, somewhat paralleling the events of The Magicians, and exploring her own rise to power. As the story goes on, it’s clear that there’s much at stake, and the roles that they play have great implications for the nature of their existence itself. The plot is an exponential growth curve as the story progresses, perfectly weaving in the characters, Grossman’s world and some interesting philosophical concepts to boot. The result is a wonderful, amazing, devastating and tragic story that left me reeling by the time I got to the last page.
The book is an entirely different ball game from The Magicians. Where the first novel was an interesting coming of age story with some very modern elements, Grossman continues the story through some logical directions: The group has found their sort of calling in life, and is headed to the next step: heroics, and everything that goes in with that: inspiring their followers, responsibility and the impacts of their actions as they move forward. The growth isn’t always pleasant, nor are there drastic changes to their personalities: Quentin and his friends can easily be described as entitled, self-righteous and annoying throughout The Magicians. They’ve learned a bit in the intervening time, but they learn more as they begin to look for something more to define their lives. This isn’t a book that describes the apathy and frustrations that the modern generation finds with their lives: it’s about finally finding something to define your life with.
The layout of the book is also much different. No longer borrowing quite so heavily from some elements from Harry Potter or the Chronicles of Narnia, The Magician King feels far more at home now that the world’s been constructed and set into motion. The story largely alternates between following Quentin and his own journey, and that of Julia, who appeared every now and then in The Magicians. A bit of a lose end from that last book, Grossman incorporates her story seamlessly into the events of The Magician King, in ways that were completely unexpected. As her story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that her actions and study of magic have directly impacted the larger narrative, and at some point, someone will have to live up to the consequences of those actions.
This is character-driven fantasy (if you can call it that – the boundaries blur heavily here) at its finest, especially as the story grows, and where Julia’s story really takes hold in the big picture: the characters have their own roles to play, but within those roles, they’re playing with powers that are beyond their understanding and at times, beyond their abilities to comprehend. This is where The Magicians King really grows beyond its predecessor, exploring the role of the characters within their world, while at the same time looking at why the world is the way it is. Touched on briefly earlier, Grossman expands his narrative to encompass religion, philosophy and even a bit of science fiction to explain the nature of his world: It feels like watching a movie for years in full screen, before shifting to a wide screen version. The result is dramatic and it gives the book that much more of a bump over the top. The story encompasses not only the responsibilities of becoming a hero, but of the consequences of power.
There are some minor flaws here and there, mainly in the story’s execution: one character, Janet, drops out of the story completely (this isn’t really a bad thing, because she’s annoying), and there are a couple of small storylines that are never really resolved. Much of Julia’s story is recounted, told, rather than fully immersed, but it’s also a minor thing that sticks out at points. None of these quibbles really impact the story as a whole.
The Magician King is a novel that really stunned me: it’s one of few out there that really captivated my attention, not through the ease of the writing, but of the ideas and characters within an epic story. Novels such as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Joe Hill’s Horns and Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass have all had such an effect, and this book easily joins their ranks in my book, surpassing the book before it. I’m a little afraid to see if Grossman will attempt a third book, because I literally can’t imagine where he could possibly go from here. Part of me hopes that he doesn’t, but part of me wonders: what’s next?