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The Magician King: A Novel by Lev Grossman
Review by Drew Bittner
Viking Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0670022314
Date: 09 August 2011 List Price $26.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

After the events in The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater is a king in the magical otherworld of Fillory. And he's bored. Seeking new challenges, he leaps on the most mundane task--traveling to a small, remote island to ask about delinquent taxes--to escape the dreary life of royalty.

That's pretty much the start of The Magician King by Lev Grossman. Quentin, his friends Eliot and Janet, and his former friend Julia now rule over Fillory. A search for a magical rabbit ends in disaster and a death, which spurs Quentin to find something practical to do. He is tired of petty adventures and the life of a king; turns out, there's really nothing to do.

When word comes in of the Outer Island, whose taxes have not been paid recently, Quentin seizes it as a reason to rebuild a sunken sailing ship, stage a contest to find a perfect bodyguard, and travel to see what's going on. Julia decides to go along, which forces Quentin to deal with the circumstances of her being there at all. (Quick spoilerish note: Julia was a friend of Quentin's who discovered magic largely on her own; her abilities now are very different from his and her powers are unpredictable.)

The Outer Island proves to be no great mystery, but Quentin does learn of a mythic golden key said to be the one that winds up the world. When he seeks it out, he and Julia end up back at Brakebills, his old school... and the start of a much bigger quest than he could have imagined.

As the story progresses, Grossman fills in Julia's tale with flashbacks about what happened to her while Quentin learned magic. Having figured out quite a bit on her own, Julia pursued magic singlemindedly but made some mistakes along the way. The end result was that she acquired formidable power but... she wasn't the same afterwards. And figuring out how very much Julia has changed is one of Quentin's most unexpected problems.

Another problem is the return trip to Fillory. Quentin and Julia seek out an old friend of Quentin's, only to find that that route is closed. If he wants to get back, then, he'll have to seek out a legendary monster and ask for a favor.

But he'd better work fast, because the discovery of this key has upset a natural balance--and now Quentin must extend his quest to the very edges of the world, lest Fillory come to an end.

Grossman has written a witty, eloquent follow-up to his bestseller The Magicians. Where the first novel was something like Catcher in the Rye Meets The Wizard of Oz, this is more like C.S. Lewis's Narnia quest-books. Quentin and Julia undertake a quest that leads them to several strange and frightening places (including that return to Earth), but instead of talking lions they have to deal with adult problems, like betrayal, broken friendships, loss of faith, and a search for their true purpose.

The story also treats magic as an addictive thing on its own, alongside alcohol, drugs and sex (which the characters have also experimented with), and the dangers of becoming dependent on magic to solve problems. Quentin learns (the hard way) that he must develop other qualities if he wants to be a hero.

Quentin continues to grow, gradually sloughing off his callow and sometimes inadvertantly cruel self as he discovers his place in the world. Julia likewise evolves away from the magic-throwing goth girl she had become. Grossman makes their path to adulthood and responsibility a difficult but exhilarating one, full of the stumbles everyone faces magnified (of course) by magic.

It's an exceptional work and entirely the sort of thing Harry Potter fans should read when they're ready for "the next thing."

Highly recommended.

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