Lev Grossman: The Magician King

The follow-up to his 2009 bestseller, The Magicians, Lev Grossman’s newest novel serves as a self-aware take on the hero’s quest. The Magician King picks up more or less where the previous book left off. Quentin Coldwater and his friends are living in the magical world of Fillory, of which they’ve been crowned kings and queens. And Quentin, being Quentin, is feeling a little restless. Because the thing about happy endings, or, for that matter, even bittersweet endings, is that life isn’t like that. Happily ever after or otherwise, life, so long as you’re in it, keeps on going.

So when a mysterious portal opens up, and dark portents make themselves known, Quentin, at least, is a little bit excited. This is the part where he gets to have an adventure. This is the part where he gets to be a hero. He’ll find out, though, that being a hero is not about winning. Being a hero, Quentin is warned, means being willing to lose. Perhaps losing everything.

The magical college of Brakebills is a distant memory in this novel. However, a secondary storyline parallels the events of the first book, telling us what happened to Quentin’s pre-magic crush, Julia, after she was invited to take the Brakebills entrance exam and failed where he succeeded. We know from the previous book what happened to him: he became a magician; he went on an adventure; he barely gave her a backward glance when she was expelled from Oz. But for whatever reason, the standard memory wipe didn’t work on her. Though she was rejected – along with countless other also-rans – from the world of institutional magic, she didn’t forget her peek behind the veil like they did. And that meant she knew what was taken from her.

Frequently I find myself bored with secondary stories that only serve to enhance or shore up some aspect of the main plot, but The Magician King pulls off the dual narratives where others have fallen flat by the simple expedient of telling two individually excellent tales. The real brilliance, however, is in the way Grossman weaves everything together, linking up with loose threads from the first book and giving us a perspective on both present and past events that we didn’t have before.

As the book progresses, we no longer lose our momentum when we switch perspectives; instead it is as if we are bouncing more and more frenetically between the converging narratives, the tension building to a fever pitch as they meet in the middle. Scenes in this book actually physically quickened my pulse – a rare feat, I assure you.

Like the first book, Grossman’s sophomore effort tackles its subject matter and their implications thoughtfully. Once the wish-fulfillment aspect of a world of magic is satisfied, there are many questions left over. What do information theory and economics tell us about the plausibility of keeping magical information both exclusive and regulated? What does the existence of magic imply about the most fundamental physics: the structure of reality and the birth of universes? Turning the question around, what new spellcasting possibilites might exotic phases of matter hold – plasmas and Bose-Einstein Condensates, say? And if things like dragons and dryads exist, what else might be out there?

Grossman’s smart writing acknowledges questions like these where other fantasies sweep them under the rug. When he describes a spell for the reversal of entropy you get that he knows the significance of the physical law being violated. He approaches comparative religion like an experienced exo-biologist.

It’s hard to believe The Magician King managed to live up to the high standards set by its predecessor. Second books in a series so often underwhelm, perhaps because authors strive to give readers more of the same things they loved in the original. But Grossman has managed to strike a balance, staying true to his story while entering brave new territory. Many of the questions, characters, and perspectives in this book are wholly new, but they still feel like organic outgrowths of those in the previous book. It’s as if all of these new revelations and adventures were present in Grossman’s universe already, just under a bush or around a bend we hadn’t gotten to yet. I’d like to see if this author can manage to keep things as interesting a third time. Certainly I plan to find out.

(Viking, 2011)

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