The Magician King
I like Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians, the story of how a boy gets to a magical college and the way the wonderful land he’s read about—the one so much like Narnia–turns out to be reachable. So I was thrilled to get a copy of Grossman’s new novel The Magician King from Viking/Penguin slightly in advance of the August 9 release date, and even more thrilled to find it a completely engrossing story, better than the first one.
Even the first line of The Magician King is exactly what it should be. I offered to read it out loud, and one of the teenagers in the room said “no, we should play Liebrary with it!” So we did; here are the entries:
“The clouds over Fillory looked like marshmallows, if marshmallows were dingy grey and spat cold water intermittently.”
“Well fuck, I’m a successful magician and I’m still living with my parents.”
“A small spark danced across Quentin’s open palm.”
But in the end, they all voted for the real first line: “Quentin rode a gray horse with white socks named Dauntless.”
Eliot, Quentin, Janet, and Julia are now the Kings and Queens of Fillory, the Narnia-like land they flew off to at the end of the first book:
“For the first few months after they’d arrived at Castle Whitespire Eliot had left them to do their own things, on the theory that they’d naturally find their own courses as rulers, and take charge of the things that best suited their various gifts. This had resulted in total chaos, and nothing getting done, and the things that did get done got done twice by two different people in two different ways. So Eliot instituted a daily meeting at which they sorted through whatever business of the realm seemed most pressing as a foursome. The five o’clock meeting was traditionally accompanied by what may have been the most gloriously comprehensive whiskey service ever seen on any of the possibly infinite worlds of the multiverse.”
What I love most about The Magician King is all the detail about the universe, sometimes given in little throwaway paragraphs like this one, which is describing the entrants in a contest Quentin holds to find a swordman to accompany him on a Dawn Treader-like expedition to a far-flung Fillorian island:
“There was an ambulatory skeleton and an animated suit of armor. They carried swords that glowed and buzzed and burned and sang. A handsome pair of conjoined twins offered to enter individually and, in the event that they vanquished the field, gallantly declared themselves willing to fight each other. An intelligent sword arrived, borne on a silk pillow, and explained that it wished to enter, it merely required somebody willing to wield it.”
There are lots of passages as good as that one, and there’s one that’s more ambitious, as it’s about how Quentin’s friend Josh set out to explore all the universes available from the Neitherlands:
“Josh had it in mind to go to Middle Earth, as in the setting of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Because if Fillory was real, why not Middle Earth….
He had it in mind to spiral outward from Earth’s fountain, square by square….
”The first world was a complete bust,” he said. “Desert everywhere. Incredible dunes, but no people at all that I could find, so I buttoned right back out of there. Next one was ice. Next one was pine forest. That one was inhabited—sort of a Native American thing….
“Wait, hang on. These worlds were the same all over? Like each one had a single climate and that’s it?”
“Well, I don’t know. I don’t even know if these other worlds are spheres, you know? Or discworlds or ringworlds whatever else. Maybe they don’t work the same way. Maybe they don’t have latitude. But I wasn’t about to hike to another climatic zone just to find out. Much easier just to hit the next fountain.
God, the things I saw….A giant tree that didn’t have any beginning or end. A sort of magnetic world, where everything stuck to you. One was all stretchy. One was just stairs, stairs and stairs and stairs. What else? There was an upside-down one. A weightless one, where you drifted around in outer space, except that space was warm and humid and smelled sort of like rosemary.”
It was extremely satisfying to find out what happened to Julia, how she learned magic without going to Brakebills, and how the magical college kept trying to get her to forget about it, including a humorous scene in which Julia gets seven acceptance letters from “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, MIT, and Caltech” and thinks scornfully “you are perhaps under the impression that I will accept these in lieu of the magic kingdom that is my rightful inheritance?”
It’s also immensely satisfying to see Quentin grow up, to see him figure out what he has to give other people and what he’s been missing about the world he was born in. When he goes to England, “it looked more like Fillory than he’d thought anywhere on Earth could. Even more than Venice. Why hadn’t anyone told him? Except of course they had, and he hadn’t believed them.” Quentin gets to talk to a dragon, who is “a lot scoldier than he expected.” He gets to find out where magic comes from, and he makes a trip to the underworld from which he is able to return, alive. The way he gets to the underworld is down a slide, because “that’s what death did, it treated you like a child, like everything you had ever thought and done and cared about was just a child’s game, to be crumpled up and thrown away when it was over. It didn’t matter. Death didn’t respect you. Death thought you were bullshit, and it wanted to make sure you knew it.”
All of the action is generously leavened with humor—one of the parts that made me laugh out loud is Julia’s experiment with “oneiromancy—dream magic. Turns out you can cast some truly amazing shit in your dreams. But after you wake up it all seems kind of pointless, and nobody really wants to hear about it.”
The ending is big and magnificent, and it ties together all sorts of things you want to learn more about. This is a splendid universe, with characters that are becoming more fascinating as we learn more about them, and with a narrator who never loses his ironic edge. It is the best book I’ve read this year. If you haven’t yet read The Magicians, it’s worth reading now just so you can get to The Magician King knowing all the background that makes it so fabulous. (Update: this reviewer thinks so too.)