Book Review – The Magician King

I definitely liked this a lot, but not quite as much as the first book. So many people seem to prefer the second book, but it was a step down for me.

Maybe it’s because it’s kind of a more straightforward, traditional fantasy book. We’re in Fillory (seemingly) for good now in the main narrative, and there’s a quest along the lines of the Narnia books. By the way, let’s take a moment to recognize just how much this book borrows from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. There’s the typical similarities to Narnia: talking animals, magic, young Earth visitors becoming kings and queens, etc. But there’s so much more I didn’t even remember until I reread the Voyage synopsis online. In both books, there’s a long journey via ship to explore outer islands, with an apparent end of the world as the final destination. There’s even the same number of MacGuffins—in The Magician King there are seven golden keys, and in Voyage they’re searching for seven lost Lords. Jeez!

I actually don’t have a problem with how liberally The Magician King cribs from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The book is different enough in theme and tone that it doesn’t feel like you’re reading the same thing; it’s subversive in a similar way to how the first book subverted our idea of magical schools like Hogwarts. That said, I don’t think The Magician King makes quite as concerted an effort to undermine those fantasy tropes as The Magicians did. It certainly does eventually, at the end (which we’ll get to), but a lot of the book is devoted to the very straightforward idea of hunting down magical MacGuffins to save a magical world.

On the outside, that lends The Magician King a sense of focus that The Magicians didn’t have. So much of The Magicians is focused on Quentin’s general coming of age, without having one distinct, driving purpose beyond Quentin’s abstract search for happiness. Once you reach the end of the sequel, though, you can look back and boil it down to two main arcs.

It seems much more focused on the outside, but I think I preferred the first book’s loose narrative style, especially because its focus on Quentin still made it feel purposeful. It’s kind of like the first book was focused on a character level but loose on a narrative level, and the second book is the opposite. In fact, I’m not even that convinced that this book is a huge leap forward in narrative focus; after all, that early arc I just mentioned doesn’t end up tying together that tightly with the later arc, more just moving around characters and doling out exposition so that everyone is where they need to be for the last stretch.

It seems like I’ve just said a lot of negative stuff about this book, but all that said, there’s a lot to admire here in terms of how Lev Grossman expands the mythology. Even though the first book was loose, it still felt extremely self-contained and brilliantly structured, and that continues here. On the outside, some of the world expansion here feels a little too ambitious. Then again, it was a pretty big jump to introduce the Neitherlands and the multiverse in the first place in the first book, so maybe the next jump Grossman makes isn’t huge. Besides, even if you’re not into the more outsize fantastical elements, there’s still the fascinating inclusion of the concept of safe houses and hedge witches, a part of this world we only heard about in passing in the first book.

I also like the way Grossman utilizes his minor characters—he finds credible ways to bring back characters from the first book for nice cameos, while still managing to expand the world to fit compelling new characters like Bingle, Benedict, Poppy, Asmodeus, etc. Janet is really the only main character underserved by this installment, and I know she’ll be featured in the next book, so I didn’t even mind that.

The main change here is that we have kind of a second protagonist this time around: Julia. To be honest, I don’t like Julia that much—she’s very self-righteous and entitled in similar ways to Quentin in the first book, but it seems like there’s an element of optimism Quentin had that she’s missing. Well, maybe ‘optimism’ is the wrong word, but at least he had a strong sense of humor. There are a few jokes Julia makes, but they’re almost always in the same snotty tone. I think your mileage may vary with this: some people absolutely loathe Quentin, but I really like him.

Anyways, I don’t love Julia, yet I somehow really liked her narrative. It’s always really interesting to see what one character was up to while something else was happening, and given that we know Julia is depressed and practically inhuman in the present day, we have a built-in curiosity about what has happened to her. Sure enough, the ending of her story is heartbreaking, and shocking in its brutality and hopelessness. I also like that the climax of the book is kind of positioned in the flashback narrative instead of the present narrative. It’s neat how Grossman is able to end the present narrative in a slightly anticlimactic way because he can relocate the climax to the past.

In the end, though, I’m mostly here for Quentin’s journey, for his struggle to learn how to be happy. And while this book isn’t as focused at telling that story as the first book, there’s lots of interesting stuff going on. There are multiple hints of growth as Quentin seems to learn to appreciate where he is. But whenever Quentin starts to accept his position and enjoy where he’s at, something else seems to come along and tempt him, and suddenly he’s convinced again that there’s a greater quest out there that will finally give his life meaning.

Some people hate Quentin and will hate watching him struggle to grow, but I find each of his regressions just as fascinating as a new external antagonist. And though the climax of Quentin’s present-day narrative isn’t as impactful as the climax of the first book, the actual final scene of the book is pretty great.

In The Magician King, just like in The Magicians, there are serious consequences for your actions, and serious sacrifices that you must make to be a hero. Quentin thinks he can be the hero of the story and live happily ever after, but that’s not how it works. That’s what makes this series exceptional: it dares to challenge its characters, and to suggest that the magic we all wish we had could come with horrifically painful side effects. There’s no chosen one; everyone is the hero of their own story. If you take up the mantle of ‘hero,’ you better be ready to deal with the sacrifices that come with that.

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