Through the magic of Amazon, I got this automatically downloaded to my Kindle yesterday, and reading it is all I’ve done until about fifteen minutes ago. This review contains some spoilers for the first book in the two-part series.
The Magician King is a sequel to Grossman’s excellent 2009 The Magicians, in which Brooklyn whiz kid Quentin Coldwater (I wish that name were utterly implausible for a Brooklyn hipster kid) gets accepted into magic college. The characterizations were uneven and the plotting was choppy, but the book was shot through with scenes of pure joy and the real longing that some of us have for magic to be real. If you don’t have that longing, think back to when you were a child and what it was you believed in then. Some of us no longer believe, but it doesn’t make the longing go away.
If The Magicians was a wisecracking, acerbic send-up of Harry Potter combined with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, its sequel is more or less The Voyage of the Dawn Treader meets The Amber Spyglass meets Hans Christian Andersen. So… basically there’s no way I could dislike this book. I’m just not programmed that way. Grossman continues to demonstrate a witty knack for dialogue that sounds exactly like a conversation between your dorkiest, brainiest, most self-conscious friends, as well as a keen sense of which pop culture references will elicit a snort from his target audience. I did find myself wondering whether the humor of the book will gradually become less effective as the years go by and Bowser the Koopa King is no longer a folk hero/villain.
In most fantasy stories about people traveling to different worlds, the story ends when the hero saves that world. But Quentin is incurably restless, so being king of Fillory just isn’t good enough. He doesn’t feel like a hero yet, so dammit, he’s going to keep having adventures until he does. And then there’s his long-time friend, former unrequited love interest, and mysterious hedge witch, Julia, whose traumatic experiences have damaged her sense of self, trapping her between adventures until she can heal enough to take the next step. The story of how she became a witch while Quentin and the gang were at Brakebills is a dark and satisfying counterpoint to Quentin’s more outer-driven quest for glory, even if it the way it plays out in the end doesn’t exactly make sense.
The Magician King doesn’t have the joyfulness of its other half, because the things that made Quentin happy as a boy don’t have the same power for him as he matures; the book is about whether he can learn that there are things more important than happiness, and what the nature of happiness even is. I know some readers were put off by the way some things fall apart in the first book, and these readers might feel a similar sense of disappointment reading this one, but they’re not “feel-good” books. They’re about wanting something terribly and then finding out it’s not what you thought it was.
Several of the more interesting plot threads that were dropped at various points in The Magicians get picked up again in this book to good effect. Sometimes, these feel like many different set pieces that aren’t as smoothly strung together as they could be, but I’m not sure this counts as a detractor for me. I felt the transitions as if they were dissolves between dream sequences. The truly bizarre nature of many of them enhances that feeling.
If you enjoyed the first book, you will likely enjoy this as well, though perhaps not as much as I did depending on what elements of the first book interested you most. In any case, Grossman has left the story open enough for a third installment, which I’ll no doubt read with equal curiosity if not equal pleasure.