The Magician King by Lev Grossman
The Magicians stood so brilliantly on its own I was unsure as to whether a sequel would be necessary, or if there was even a story to tell. The Magician King succeeds by shifting the focus somewhat from the intricate relationships between its characters towards broadening the setting and focusing on the epic elements of his universe. It was a good call; The Magician King is excellent.
The Magician King picks up a few years after the end of The Magicians, with Quentin, Elliot, Janet and Julia living in comfort as Kings and Queens of Fillory. The mysterious death of an attendant sets in motion a series of events which sees Quentin and Julia kicked out of Fillory and back to Earth, desperate to find a way back. In the background, something dangerous is stirring which threatens all magic, and the worlds which rely on it. At the same time, we are given the story of how Julia learnt her magic after she failed her Brakebills test back in The Magicians.
Simply put, both stories are great. Although Quentin’s journey back to Fillory takes a little too long, things soon pull out and we begin to see the scale Grossman is playing with here. It’s also much less self-contained than the first, with a clear indication of the oncoming sequel. We get to discover a lot more about this setting; both the grittier side of the underground magic scene but also the broader questions of theology and the very source of magic. Julia’s story is just as gripping and fairly heart breaking, as we see her journey from the chirpy and fiendishly clever young woman glimpsed in the opening chapters of The Magicians to the ethereal and dark figure we’re presented with at the beginning of The Magician King.
This novel contains some truly nasty and disturbing stuff, with one scene in particular being incredibly unpleasant to read. I went back and forth on it, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. People will know the scene I mean when they get to it. However, like the first one, there are plenty of laughs too, with the changes in tone following a clear rhythm and avoiding becoming jarring. The Magician King is an epic in the way The Magicians wasn’t trying to be, and if compared to the Narnia books which so clearly inspired it, this one is very much The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The dialogue is still as brilliantly low as it was in the first one though, with the parallel between the high fantasy silliness of Fillory and the crudeness and pop culture references of its Earthling rulers not getting old.
Quentin is less of a mess this time around, but he still has that yearning feeling for something more, even when he’s a King in his own personal fantasy land. Once again, I sympathise with Quentin a lot and truly identify with him (Quentin’s genius level intellect aside). He’s a flawed protagonist, but very human and likeable despite his moments of spite and nastiness. Julia emerges as a really great character, as we see a very different magic education to Quentin’s, which shapes her in a very different way. One thing that The Magician King does lack compared to its predecessor is a strong villain; there’s no one at Martin Chatwin levels of creepy here, with the villainous characters only showing up briefly and towards the end. The Magicians had a similar problem, but sadly it’s actually worse here. Still, Grossman has created a fun cast of strong characters, who I look forward to meeting again in the next one.
The Magician King doesn’t quite have the impact of the first book, but it’s a damn good read nonetheless. For those who may be cynical about the need for a sequel, cast your doubts away, The Magician King is worthy.