In early 2010 I read The Magicians by Lev Grossman. I really liked it and wanted to read the sequel when it came out but never got to it. A couple of weeks ago I was in Indianapolis for the Public Library Association conference, and ironically found myself without any recreational reading.
I turned to NH Downloadable books, our state library e-book consortium, and tried as best I could to reproduce the serendipity of the stacks on my iPad. A few minutes later, I was downloading The Magician King.
When I describe these books to potential readers I usually mention that Grossman alludes heavily to Harry Potter — the first book opens when Quentin Coldwater is called to Brakebills, a secret magic college — and to the Narnia chronicles. Quentin’s favorite books as a child are set in a magical world called Fillory.
They are very much grown up books — The Magician is not just a fantasy, but a coming of age story, gloriously messy and tangled. Full of sex and drugs, and full as well of the longing for something real that marks every awakening into mature consciousness. How are we to live? Who can we count on? What is True with a capital T? Which is why I loved it.
Not only that, but it’s also a book set in urban contemporary America that was as magically complex and fascinating as Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. The Magicians was one of the most satisfying books I read in the last few years. So I was absolutely delighted that The Magician King did not let me down.
You know the feeling — you start a sequel and realize ten pages out of the gate that the conceit just doesn’t work in the second book the way it did in the first and you already don’t care where it’s heading. Or worse, you like it and then it fizzles out. But not so this time.
When The Magician King opens Quentin is bored. He’s enjoys being a king and he’s mostly recovered from the events that preceded his ascendance. But something deep inside him is agitated, even more so after a simple outing in the forest near the castle goes awry. He makes a rash decision to sail East on an errand and in the way of fantasies, that decision unlocks a series of events that lead to ever greater magical challenges. Everything Quentin thinks he’s ever wanted is on the line, and whenever it looks like a resolution is in reach, things slip away from him again.
As much as The Magician King is Quentin’s story it’s also Julia’s. Julia Wicker grew up with Quentin in Brooklyn but failed the Brakebills entrance exam. When her examiners “erased” her memory, they failed, and she is haunted by what could have been. In The Magician King we learn what happened to her while Quentin was at Brakebills and what it is that she has been longing for — and whether Quentin can help her.
Once again Grossman is writing just as much about the human psyche as magic. What makes us tic and what keeps us going when everything else in life has headed south? What’s fundamental to our humanity? Why do we let each other down? What’s left to rely on when we find ourselves alone? Which are, after all, the subjects of all good books. I love the magical stagecraft, but I stay for the great read. I’m really excited that the 3rd book, The Magician’s Land, is due out in August.