In 2009, Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIANS took the fantasy world by storm. We followed a cadre of young magical elites as they adventured through the wizard-college-that-isn’t-Hogwarts and the land-of-magical-animals-that-isn’t-Narnia. And we watched their realizations that magical escapes aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, as they --- and the fantasy genre --- grew up. His sequel takes these themes in a darker direction, as bildungsroman becomes transformative fantasy in a story that may make you reconsider how you read the genre forever.
"The novel is a code book of fantasy references and reflections. But you don’t need a fantasy literature pedigree to get the jokes."
THE MAGICIAN KING picks up with our 20-something wizards as kings and queens of Fillory, the Narnia-that-isn’t-Narnia. Their story begins where most fantasies end: the happily ever after. Their lifelong dreams achieved, their demons (literal and figurative) defeated, life is full of drinking and hunting and gallivanting in a giant castle. But beneath the thin veneer of magical contentment, we’re quick to learn that no one --- still --- is actually happy with their lives. And the world isn’t as it should be. THE MAGICIAN KING is a darker, more brooding story than its predecessor. It explores the cruelty of our ambitions and the flimsiness of our dreams. And it continues to poke at the fantasy genre with a pointy stick until uncomfortable truths bleed out.
It turns out there’s little to do for the royalty of a perfect magical realm. To relieve their boredom, our protagonist Quentin and his former high school crush Julia embark on a deliberately arbitrary quest for a meaningless prize. So enthusiastic for adventure --- no matter how contrived --- they push and push until they go too far, stumbling into the place they hoped never to see again: the real world. The framing quest of the novel is to merely return to where they started, and where they weren’t that happy anyway.
The real treasure, and surprise, of THE MAGICIAN KING is Julia, a character readers only encountered briefly in the first novel. Denied admission to Brakebills, the elite magical college Quentin and friends attended, Julia was forced to learn her magic on the streets, an education of brutal sacrifice in safe houses with magic junkies. In a story stuffed with over-privileged kids who received the gift of magic on a silver platter, reading Julia’s harsh backstory is refreshing. It is, of course, a metaphor for the absurd inequality of our education system today. But Grossman’s #1 rule of fantasy is that nothing is just metaphor. Reading Julia is soul-stirring, the reason we care about books and the characters who inhabit them.
Grossman has peppered THE MAGICIAN KING with other pleasures to offset the gloomy atmosphere. The novel is a code book of fantasy references and reflections. But you don’t need a fantasy literature pedigree to get the jokes. Grossman’s favorite subject, it seems, is the peculiar arbitrariness of magic and the structure of fantasy stories. Gaining access back to Fillory is made less the reward of good work or a good soul than it is a happy accident. Ember, the god-of-Fillory-that-isn’t-Narnia’s-Aslan, is presented less as a font of fantastic wisdom than as a stentorian bureaucrat, an enforcer of the ridiculous