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 rules that govern heroic quests. Though these are serious and sad absurdities, they’re even more an in-joke commentary for anyone who’s ever read fantasy, and a dastardly fun one at that.
This is not Grossman dissing magic and fantasy. He loves it far too much. Instead it’s a sleight-of-hand trick to make us consider what fantasy and magic are all about it. For Grossman, it seems, the sad truth is that fantasy is less childlike escape than it is a form of longing that cannot be fulfilled. And magic --- usually presented as both an end in itself and a means to a life where everything works out --- is the punishment that keeps on giving. Not only does it fail to bring happiness to Quentin and his friends, it can’t even help them escape their unhappy lives.
THE MAGICIAN KING robs us of our fantasy innocence. While the Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia series hint that magic isn’t a cure-all to our problems, they never doubt that it improves their characters’ lives. With both comic lightness and deadly seriousness, Grossman dashes that assumption. The effect is refreshing: we don’t need magic to make us happy, and if escapism doesn’t work, perhaps we won’t long for it as much. That THE MAGICIAN KING is such a wonderful escapist yarn is just another of Grossman’s delicious ironies, a joke that will keep you smiling well after the last page.
Reviewed by Max Falkowitz on August 12, 2011