Josh’s Review: “The Magician King” by Lev Grossman

A few weeks ago, I put up a rather ranty review of The Magicians by Lev Grossman.  I tried to be (as we usually do here at Genre Lasagna) as non-spoilery as possible, and I’m going to try the same thing here, although many of my thoughts regarding The Magician King have to do with it being the second book in a trilogy, which means I may not fully succeed in avoiding all spoilers for books one and two.  So, fair warning, brave traveler.

The Magician King came out this past summer, and it continues the story of Quentin Coldwater, the depressed, brilliant, unfocused magician who, after the events of the first book, finds himself in a comfortable but stagnant position of authority in the magical land of Fillory.  Whereas the first book was a clear reworking of the urban fantasy trope that has become so popular in the wake of J.K. Rowling, The Magician King follows after a pastoral fantasy like The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in both its narrative structure and (partially) its content.  And in every way, it works beautifully.  Quentin finds his quest in this book and, accompanied by a host of new characters (and some old), he takes to the high seas of Fillory.  Like his first book, Grossman’s second novel in this trilogy features a great interplay between the gritty, depressing real world (replete with hedge witches and underground magical circles) and the fantasy realm of Fillory/the strange Neitherlands.

While Quentin’s story is neat and would probably be enough to keep me entertained, the real genius of the book is the way in which Grossman blends Julia’s backstory into the plot.  Julia, it turns out, wasn’t just sitting around while Quentin and friends made their way through Brakebills and learned how to be real wizards.  After the point at which we leave her in The Magicians, Julia’s life begins to spiral out of control, and we get to follow her down that rabbit hole in The Magician King.  And for me, this is the best part of the book and probably the best storytelling from Grossman thus far.  Julia’s story is tragic, touching, and severely depressing, which, for these books and this writer, shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise.  Julia begins the novel looking for the magic life and world that she knows she’s missing out on, and, in a weird way, her story begins as an attempt to find Quentin’s story from the first book.  She wants to break into that urban fantasy narrative that Quentin found in The Magicians, but the world of Brakebills is just out of her reach, so Julia, like the genius, awesome person that she is, makes do.  And along the way, Julia finds a community of people who, like her, realized how inadequate the real world is and did something about it.  Like any good fantasy (or just genre) novel, Julia’s story stops being about the trappings of the genre–spellcasting, wizard schools, magical lands–and starts being about the people in the story.

I’m not sure how soon the third book is going to come out, but it will absolutely be a first-day buy for me.  Grossman does a nice job of leaving the novel in a place that not only requires a third book in terms of plot, it also requires a third book in terms of character development.  Quentin has a few more miles to go before he becomes the person the reader and the narrative needs him to be, and I’m looking forward to seeing that happen.

Lev Grossman’s The Magician King gets 4 ½ slices of lasagna from me!

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