The Magician King is Lev Grossman’s follow up to The Magicians; a series which is billed as ‘Harry Potter for Grown-Ups’. What that means in reality, is that the protagonists are all in their early twenties, have sex and swear. Both books are very much tales of growing up and facing the realities of the world. Grossman uses fantasy as a powerful tool to this end.
This is the story of Quentin Coldwater, who is the titular monarch of a magical land called Fillory. However, he’s originally from New York and is getting restless in his magical utopia. He wants to go on a quest, and his wish is granted with a mundane and almost Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace style plot device.
Quentin rules the land with his friends Elliot, Janet and Julia. Julia has a dark secret in her past and for reasons she chooses not to explain, joins Quentin on his voyage. Things get complicated when Julia and Quentin unexpectedly find themselves back on Earth and no apparent way of returning to Fillory. A series of apparently unconnected mini-adventures ensue as more of the plot is revealed, although you know that everything will tie up in the end (otherwise it would be bad storytelling). Characters from their past return to their lives and they visit places both real and imagined. All the while, this quest is interspersed with Julia’s story. You see, Quentin went to Brakebills, the Hogwarts of this universe, while Julia failed the entry test. She had to find her way to Fillory the hard way, and her back story is pivotal to why she is trailing around after Quentin. It soon becomes evident that what started out as a disjointed, frivolous affair is in fact the quest to save the world and everything in it.
I enjoyed Julia’s story more than Quentin’s in The Magician King. I don’t believe in Quentin’s character as much and so when things don’t go his way, I was less inclined to care. I just wanted to find out more about Julia. Her motivations and flaws are simply more interesting, although her role in the quest becomes a little annoying – she never explains herself and no-one asks (which I don’t believe would happen). The story of magic itself is fairly standard. For most of the novel, magic isn’t explained, it just is, which is refreshing. However, Grossman starts to think about magic and taking a magician’s power to its logical conclusion, which then needs to invoke religion (although not necessarily religions) to fulfil the plot promise. It works well and the ideas are again more interesting than Quentin’s tale, relegating him to third place in the story. Some new and interesting characters are introduced and are wrapped up neatly, especially the customs officer. Janet barely receives a mention, which is a shame, and Penny (who was so important in book 1) has an odd cameo which is not fulfilling. In fact, the exchange leaves a major plot hole which goes unmentioned later on in the story.
You can come to this book without reading The Magicians as Grossman skilfully weaves enough back-story into the narrative so you don’t feel lost. If you are interested in reading an agreeable modern quest novel which has something to say about growing up, and becoming an adult, without too much existential angst or real depth, The Magicians is a pleasant and interesting enough read. It’s not groundbreaking or particularly original, but it is fun.