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122 of 133 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars After the "Ever After"
Can it possibly be only two years since I read Lev Grossman's The Magicians? If you asked me about that novel, I would immediately tell you that I loved it. Apparently, that's about all I could tell you. Having just read Grossman's engaging follow-up, I regret not having reread, or at least brushed up on, the first novel. References to prior events were plentiful, and...
Published on August 9, 2011 by Susan Tunis

75 of 89 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Characters didn't love, fight or hate
Not as good as The Magicians. This book felt rushed to publication, as the author seemed to default to "the item magically appears so that quest could be completed..." theme over and over and over. My impression of the first book was that the reader would come to that same conclusion (that fortuitous events mystically occurred occasionally in order to move the quest...
Published on August 22, 2011 by RRZ

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122 of 133 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars After the "Ever After", August 9, 2011
Can it possibly be only two years since I read Lev Grossman's The Magicians? If you asked me about that novel, I would immediately tell you that I loved it. Apparently, that's about all I could tell you. Having just read Grossman's engaging follow-up, I regret not having reread, or at least brushed up on, the first novel. References to prior events were plentiful, and rather than jog my memory, they highlighted just how fallible it is. Hopefully yours is better, or you will take the steps I didn't prior to reading the sequel. Oh, and it goes without saying that if you haven't read the first novel, don't start with this one.

Nonetheless, my inexact memory did not keep me from enjoying the latest adventures of Quentin Coldwater et al. Even I recalled that at the end of The Magicians Quentin, Julia, Elliott, and Janet had left our world to become the co-queens and kings of the magical (and not fictional after all) land of Fillory. The end. I thought that was the end. It was a good ending, and I didn't expect any more. As we catch up with Quentin and co., they are living their "happy ever after." It's glorious. It's perfect. It's boring. To some degree, this has ever been the issue of life in a magical world.

Quentin is itching for a quest, but this is countered by the reasonable fear of screwing up a perfect life. When a safe-looking mini-quest comes along, Quentin goes for it--and screws up his perfect life. The mini-quest evolves into a major-quest with the highest of stakes. While this primary drama is unfolding, there is a second story being told in reflection. The Magicians recounted the education and coming of age of Quentin, Elliott, and Janet. Finally we learn what "hedgewitch" Julia was doing all of those years, and how she learned her craft. It would be an understatement to say that she took a different path. It's a fascinating counterpoint. Along the way of these twin narratives, we meet many new characters and revisit old ones.

I've now read three of Mr. Grossman's four novels, and I've enjoyed all of them. If I had to pick out the one thing that sets his work apart, the word that comes to mind is "unpredictability." When you read as much as I do, a lot of storytelling becomes formulaic. This isn't always a bad thing. Formula can expedite storytelling or give shape to a narrative. In any case, I think most avid readers begin to get a feel for where a story is likely to go. But not with Mr. Grossman. I never know. I don't have a clue. I just know that he's going to pull something different and unexpected out of his magician's hat.

Additionally, it's always a pleasure to read his prose. And he's a champion at world-building. I adore the world he's created in Fillory, and the dozens and dozens of pop culture references found throughout the text increase the fun and anchor that world to the reality of our own. It's not merely Rowling and Lewis and Tolkien. It's Die Hard and Star Trek and D & D. It's Elmer Fudd, Dr. Suess, and GEB. It's Disney, Dr. Who, and Discworld--and too many more to ever list.

I've rated this novel down one star only because I didn't love it quite as much as its predecessor. I had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Grossman briefly at BEA. Expressing surprise at the sequel, I asked if there would be more books in the series. He told me that he thinks there will be a third, making it a trilogy. This second book comes to a shocking and unresolved conclusion. So, to Lev Grossman I say, "Damn straight there will be a third book!" It can't end like this. And while clearly I have NO idea where the tale will go, I WILL be along for the ride.
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75 of 89 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Characters didn't love, fight or hate, August 22, 2011
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Not as good as The Magicians. This book felt rushed to publication, as the author seemed to default to "the item magically appears so that quest could be completed..." theme over and over and over. My impression of the first book was that the reader would come to that same conclusion (that fortuitous events mystically occurred occasionally in order to move the quest along), but in the first book, such intervention of "fate" seemed indirect and subtle. In the sequel, the appearence of the missing items doesn't surprise the reader (or the characters within the story) and appeared to be the norm and not the exception.

I still love the author's books and his numerous references to modern events and terminology, but overall, the book was mildly disappointing. The first book seemed so "meaty," with exhaustive portions of the story containing riveting explanations of unusual people, places, events, emotions and relationships. (Who didn't love the development of friendships and antagonistic relationships at Brakebills?). The sequel, on the other hand, seems rushed, with very little for us to sink our teeth into. In the first book I found myself loving (and rooting for) many of the main characters and I empathized with so many of the characters in so many of the scenes. Who wasn't heartbroken when primary and secondary characters died in the first book?

In the sequel, the characters seemed to simply be scenery. They just seemed emotionally checked out and disconnected from each other (none of them seemed to rely on each other for anything in the least). I didn't find myself emotionally invested in the characters in the sequel. It almost seemed like most of the characters showed up for brief cameo appearences, but the characters almost didn't acknowledge each other being in the same scene at the same time and their friendships and their relationships didn't evolve. They didn't love, fight or hate. I think the author lost sight of the fact that we the readers loved the interaction between the characters in the first book most of all (even above the occurrence of the remarkable events themselves).
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44 of 52 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Something went seriously wrong (Spoilers), January 1, 2012
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I enjoyed the first book despite its shortcomings and looked forward to reading this sequel. I even paid full price for both. Now that I have read the sequel, I can't say that I feel the same way about its inevitable follow-up.

We start with Quentin and the three people who picked him up at the end of the last book (Julia, Eliot, and Janet) well established as the rulers of Fillory. Like Narnia, which Grossman rips off even more blatantly in this book than he did in the last, Fillory has two kings and two queens. We skipped over exactly why or how this came to be and no explanation is offered in this book. We DO get a detailed explanation for how Julia became a magician without an acceptance to Brakebills. The story is interesting, but I disliked it for personal reasons. I just take umbrage with any person, fictional or non, who blames their failures on other people. Julia's story is filled with whining about how she deserved to get into Brakebills and she blames everyone except herself for flunking the exam that got her rejected in the first place. INCLUDING QUENTIN, which suddenly becomes a major plot point in the last ten pages of the novel. And since Grossman never establishes that she even WANTED to be a magician in the first place, her attitude is even harder to deal with. Why is she so determined to get into a world she never had much desire to join in the first place? She just wants it because she can't have it. And [BIG SPOILER ALERT!!] that story ends with a crazy rape scene that just pops out of the blue with zero warning and zero context or relevance. There's much to be said about a male author who subjects a female character to rape and then tries to use that as some kind of empowerment.

So first the story is Quentin wanting a quest or some adventure to take him out of his palatial boredom. That veers into Quentin getting moved back to Earth by accident, then trying to get back. Once he gets back, he joins a quest that's nearly over, we get one confusing "action" scene that is honestly very poorly written, and then we learn about a huge, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it danger 3/4ths of the way through the book. Luckily, this danger can be solved by completing the quest THEY'RE ALREADY ON. And then Surprise!, fifty pages later, quest's over and the danger is gone. WE SEE NO ACTION in this book except for the aforementioned bad scene. There are DRAGONS in this book and it's STILL BORING!! How does that happen? Something somewhere went seriously wrong in the writing of this novel. My guess is that Grossman decided to rip off "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" practically verbatim then wimped out of that and cobbled together another story to staple onto that one instead. If you're going to rip something off, just go for it! Do it all the way, or don't do it at all. Like the crew of the Dawn Treader, the characters here sail east to various islands looking for lost things that are scattered across the Eastern sea. As they go, the sea gets more shallow and the sun gets more intense, until they reach a place where the world ends. UNLIKE Dawn Treader, we don't actually get to see most of the islands they visit, even though they're named on the map in the front and back of the book. Eliot sums them all up in once sentence for Quentin, and we move right along to the END of that story. In another scene, a character returns to announce that there will be a battle waged between Gods and magicians, and that DRAGONS are helping them fight it. All these dragons burst out, then Quentin leaves to go do something else. WE DON'T GET TO SEE THE DRAGON FIGHT.

What kind of a writer comes up with or rips off awesome ideas for a story, then FAILS to actually WRITE ABOUT THEM?? Why the heck did he choose to ONLY write about the boring parts of this journey? I would have preferred to follow them on their sea adventure and have Quentin show up and briefly explain the boring crap he did on Earth while everyone else was having a good time. Quentin simply isn't an interesting enough character to follow unless he's doing something pretty cool. I didn't realize that in the last book because he WAS doing something that was interesting to read about, and Grossman wrote it pretty well. That is not the case here.

Sorry there are so many spoilers in this review, but I just don't know how to explain my frustration with it without spoiling things a bit. And summing up that frustration in words was harder than I thought it would be. The bottom line is that Grossman had all the plot elements and ingredients to make this book good, but he mixed them all up and told them in the wrong order and in the wrong way, so all we're left with is a peek at what the book COULD have been if he'd handled it better. It's a mess, is what I am trying to say. It's just a really complete and total mess. VERY disappointing.

Based on how things "end" there will have to be a sequel to this. I won't be reading it unless I get a free copy and have a lot of free time.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Stuck in the Neitherlands - spoiler alerts, August 29, 2011
John Cullom (Washington, DC USA) - See all my reviews
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The concept that drew me to these two books was that they're an adult literary treatment of a concept that has largely been addressed with either young adult or pulp adult writing and characters. I feel like The Magicians squeaked by in meeting that criteria (although the moral center did not hold). The Magician King does not. I think this does work as pretty good fantasy. There's a good deal of inventiveness, plot twists based on the created rules of the world, characters we basically care about. There's one very high quality creation in the gods which is severely underexploited. But overall, it's not great fantasy.

But it is definitely not literary. The quality of the writing has dropped significantly from the first book, and a great deal of it seems plain lazy. I don't think any of this would bother me except for the fact that I think Lev Grossman has the chops to do this right. There have been astounding sequences - e.g. Brakebills South, and I think that LG has brought a character to the page that is new to literature but common to life - nose to the grindstone type, with the realistic tradeoffs that are made to become good at something. There's a working metaphor with magic and writing that is working under the surface that he is able to tap to create a credible portrait of a teenager learning to become a powerful magician. That's no mean feat.

The book that comes to mind, and that I'm probably unfairly expecting, is The Corrections. The Corrections starts in the slang and quotidian of the suburbs, but elevates that life to literature. I think part of the reason that this works is that The Corrections knows what it is: literature. There's a burden on it to raise and explore a moral question, and if not to answer it, then to suggest why the answer is difficult to arrive at.

The Magicians starts in that vein, and there are legitimate moral questions to address: how do you live life without magic, once you know it exists? That's a fantastic metaphor, and something that almost all of us address in our lives when we see people operating in a profession that we are unable to break into. How many actors are there trying to get a movie? How man movie stars that want to direct? A lazy example, but we all have them, barring perhaps a very few that succeed on their own terms in their chosen field.

/***************Spoiler Alert*********************************/
Does the Magicians end on that note and address the question, no, it steps away by whisking Quentin into magicland as soon as the answers get difficult. Does the Magician King? Maybe, but credits roll immediately, so there's no exploration of a viable answer. Every time somebody almost loses magic, they get it back, so the author himself seems to be having a hard time getting off the (magic) sauce. Good luck for his characters.

There's some sort of moral teaching about sacrifice and maturity, but that doesn't rise to the level of interesting for me. More importantly, it's not a question that has to be answered with this world, magic doesn't have that much to do with it. You could bring up the same thing in a GI Joe cartoon if you left out the parachutes.
/**************End Spoiler Alert*************************/

In the end, I feel like these books don't know what they want to be. When there's a difficult moral question, magic resolves it or alleviates it. When there's a time to dazzle with imagination, there are ironic borrowings (sure, they're allusions) to suggest that the book is a literary commentary on the genre. In the end, neither the criteria for literature or fantasy are quite satisfied. It works as decent fantasy with some gen x, bordering on y material, but I'm too old to be reading something like that, and in the end, I'm a little embarrassed I spent my time this way.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Here, Have Some Long-Winded Rage, January 26, 2013
I loved The Magicians and was eager to gobble up the sequel. I tried to like it, and did at the beginning. True to a writer who theoretically understands form, the first chapter opened up a great story with a mysterious death and a quest taken out of extreme boredom. The plot quickly derails as they go island hopping, Quentin and Julia get stuck back on Earth and you learn about Julia's both obvious and absurd back story. This booked suffered from the lack of a tight plot, keen as well as sarcastic world building, and the character development that made it worth the trip to Breakbills/Fillory the first time around. The Magician King is more of the same hyper snarkiness without the cohesive adventure. The `tude was amusing the first time around, now it's tiresome.

SPOILERS: Julia's back story is the true reeking turd of literary disgrace in the whole fantasy genre. Here's the gist so you don't have to suffer through it if you don't want to. As boring as Quentin was in this book, Julia was horrible. With Julia you get a first class ticket into the world of the genius IQ, manic depressive stereotype. The Harvard bound, privileged super nerd gets told no once when she fails her test to get into Breakbills and it's a steady descent into madness from there. She writes off her family and breaks their hearts, not once but twice, in the pursuit of magical power purely because she doesn't have it yet. She throws away her future at an Ivy League school and then ignores them completely. Then she sleeps and hands jobs her way around the underground magical community to learn all the magic she can, jumping the hoops and "leveling up" because that's all Julia the super academic knows.

When she finds a group of depressive, "misunderstood" super geniuses like herself she decides they are good enough for her and this was the family she was looking for all along. Too bad they're as greedy and self-entitled as she is, because all they seem to care about is achieving more power. This comes in the form of combing the world's religions for high-end ceremonial magic, and it's presented as if you need a genius IQ to come to that conclusion. Between her worthy friends and a loving goddess figure Julia's discovered, she's actually happy and realizes maybe she didn't need power after all, but surprise! The goddess they try to summon is actually a trickster god who kills everyone because nothing in this world can be truly happy and fulfilling, and if it looks like it is, it's because it's a lie. Isn't Lev so dark and edgy??? Unlearning her revelation from before, Julia then begs the god to give her power, who injects her with super powered magical semen-yeah, that's right- during a rape and steals her soul. Turns out the only way to redemption is to go to Fillory, travel to the Underworld (an epic journey that takes all of five pages, maybe), realize no one there can see you so you must have no soul (no denying it now), and become a Dryad, serving the Goddess in Fillory. Yes, the only way to be happy is to deny your humanity. Get help, Lev.

The entire basis of Julia seems to be to make her as much of a dysfunctional Hermione as possible. Her hard work, determination and genius IQ, instead of giving her some perspective and actual brilliance, make her the super slut of the magical underworld, because to Lev that's just the sort of world we live in: all women get what they want by giving hand jobs. From Julia's story we learn that your true family isn't actually your real, loving family, all real-world Goddess religions are a lie perpetuated by dark gods (Christian brainwashed much?), and the only way to true happiness is to go to a magical other dimension and ascend into a higher spiritual being completely away from reality. Well, if nothing else, at least I feel smarter than these "genius IQ" straw men characters.

Two stars because Lev can paint a vivid picture, just not a very cogent one this time around.
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24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Like the second serving of an excellent dessert--, August 14, 2011
After hearing about "The Magicians" on NPR, I picked up the first book in this series and was completely enthralled. It was a rewarding exploration of a problem that is rarely addressed--what could possibly motivate a character who, through power or technology, can address every level of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs...except, of course, for those difficult-to-get ones like meaning, self-knowledge, and so on. It was a Postmodern Harry Potter (I mean that in only the nicest possible way)--ironic, disdainful of happy endings, and realistic.

At this point, the only seriously negative review of this book on Amazon points out that it's thick with in-jokes and pop culture references. And it is, and in a certain sense that's an easy, jarring, almost parasitic sort of humor, I can see how it might seriously put a wrench in one's suspension of disbelief. But in Grossman's world the device adds to the feeling of being immersed in the geek/internets jaded, referential culture--and I think it reflects how Grossman's characters, at least at the beginning of their story arcs, are consumers rather than producers. Until we meet Julie, our wizards are fonts of received wisdom, brilliant students perhaps, but inward-focused beasts more enthralled with their own wit and personal tragedies than putting their near-omnipotence into any meaningful use. I'm strongly reminded of Pamela Dean's "Tam Lin" title, where the characters spin delightful chains of wit, fabulous crystals of logophilia that could only develop in the zero-G environment of fiction.

Aaanyway...I did love this book, it might actually have been as good a story as the first. But it was a bit "more of the same," without the magic of discovery of the first book--for the characters (well, except for Julie, her "origins" story carries through the book and keeps the sparkle of the new in the title), and for the reader, who is now already aware of the epidemic of Weltschmerz in the magical community. It was a solid book, but the first one was fresh and new, the second is a happy return to the first one's ideas--and probably not a very satisfying stand-alone novel.

The title leans rather heavily on Narnia, and a lot of the fun of the book was in how those ideas were woven into this title in a big way--if the first book was 30something JK Rowling, the second is the same for CS Lewis. I'm not sure if this is a bad thing, but I am reminded of why the "Allegory" literary style died out--creating 1:1 correspondences is a little artless. I'm absolutely not saying that this was the case here, I felt that the book used Narnia tropes in a most satisfactory way, but if a college professor (or an amazon reviewer) wrote "derivative, see me" on this thesis, they could make a solid case for an A-, or even a B+.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars magician? king? where?, February 17, 2012
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So I enjoyed the first one, it seriously depressed me but it was well done and solid. This one feels so rambling and half-hazard that I wonder if he only wrote this for the royalty check.

**Spoilers(though minor)**
The first book ends with Quentin having mastered all of the magic he had ever encountered, he could stop and reverse time, fly to the moon and back, all sorts of amazing things. That he somehow forgot how to do from the last book to this. In this book he can't even seem to magic his way out of a wet paper bag. He has become more whiny and self-centered without Alice and Julia is quite possibly one of the most annoying characters I've ever had the misfortune to read. She feels like more of a MacGuffin than a character. Knowing and doing the perfect thing at that moment to move them on to the next bit without really much foreshadowing of her abilities or knowledge, other than a character cryptically saying, "she knows things".

Having read Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth novel where the Black sisters give themselves to demons for extra powers I kind of saw the rape bit coming. Which made it all the more cheesy when it played out that way because it felt like he was saying, "See she is really dark and edgy and you should feel bad for her but also she is awesome because she was raped by a demon and I totally didn't rip this from another super popular fantasy series where women get raped for super magical powers, this is totally my original thing because see she didn't mean it.". It just felt a little too forced in a book full of ripoffs, sorry, "allusions".

Again I did enjoy the first one but this one just doesn't go anywhere(literally, the ending of the book effectively puts the characters into the exact situation they were in 5 pages before the end of the first book) and the characters have no redeeming traits. I effectively didn't care if they all died half way through the book and the rest was the story of muffins the cat. That might have actually had a better ending.

I highly recommend the Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss instead of this book. If you are curious about Grossman read the first one but save yourself and don't bother with the sequel. It won't give you anything you are looking for and will just leave you frustrated that you spent your time on this and possible depressed at the current state of fantasy literature if this is hyped as the new cream of the crop.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Inexplicably bad, January 9, 2012
As abysmal as "The Magicians" was magnificent, my mouth gaped with disbelief, that at every turn this novel revealed increasing idiocy and absurdity. How could our beloved protagonists have failed to learn anything through their tragedies and traumas of the first novel, in which they matured to learn that the fantasy land of their hearts was a creation of their childish dreams and idealism? How could they return to retread the exact path, "to find adventure!'' I must draw the only logical explanation to explain how this novel could so completely fail to expand on even a single thread of its progenitor: Mr. Grossman's "biggest fan" must have retrieved his broken body off some isolated byway and worked him over by reading Stephen King novellas until he ground out this sleepwalk.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Should Be The Magician Queen, August 27, 2011
Timothy Haugh (New York, NY United States) - See all my reviews
In The Magicians, Mr. Grossman took us on an interesting trip through an adult version of C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling. However, for fans of Lewis and Rowling, The Magicians could be pretty tough going at times. With The Magician King, Mr. Grossman does himself a service by getting a bit further from his source material. On the other hand, he risks souring fans of his own fiction by challenging the expectations he's set-up in his previous novel.

Quentin, the protagonist of The Magicians, is back as the magician king of this novel. Now a King of Fillory, Quentin sets off on a quest in this novel a la The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It turns out to be a rollicking good quest, full of danger and good twists and turns. Grossman deserves credit for a really good story. The problem is, Quentin turns out to be really just a secondary character in this book. The Magician King is actually Julia's story.

Julia, a minor character from The Magicians, is a "hedge witch", someone who learns magic on the street. Nearly half this novel is given over to the trials Julia went through to earn her great powers and how it's connected to Quentin's quest. And, on its own, Julia's story is excellent. Seeing how Julia earns her "stars" and becomes powerful is some of the best stuff Grossman's written so far. However, it flies in the face of the world for which he's laid the groundwork in his previous novel.

We're given to believe that Brakebills, the school of magic, is the place where the highest levels of magic are learned. How is it, then, that a group of amateurs, most all rejected by Brakebills, somehow, on their own, in less time that it takes to get a Brakebills' degree, take magic so far beyond the "professionals"? It's really a slap in the face to the energy we've in Quentin and his path.

And that, I think, hints at the even bigger problem. Okay, I can almost accept Julia and her world of self-discovered magic. What I have real trouble swallowing is how weak Quentin turns out to be. After his stay at Brakebills, we're led to believe that Quentin is potentially one of the best magicians around. (His run to the South Pole is still one of my favorite scenes in The Magicians.) And yet, after leaving Brakebills, he hardly ever uses magic unless he's forced to and he rarely does things easily or well. In essence, Quentin is not an actor in this novel, he's a reactor and, therefore, is interchangeable with almost anyone. That is not what I expected when I got involved in this world, and it seems unfair to what Quentin's gone through.

On some level, I'm being nit-picky about a novel that really is quite good. On the other hand, I thought Mr. Grossman had a handle on something great and he's letting it slip away. I assume there will be another novel to come. I hope it capitalizes on the potential of his world and has Quentin grow up a bit.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must-read, one of my top ten this year, August 16, 2011
In Lev Grossman's novel The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater--a geeky fantasy-loving high school senior--has his life turned upside down when he is invited to take an entrance exam for Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. After spending years learning the craft, and some time outside of school in a Brett Easton Ellis novel kind of existence, life is turned around again when he and several of his newfound magician friends discover that Fillory--the magical setting of a series of beloved children's books (think Narnia and you've got it)--is real. And they can go there.
"Real" is a key word in The Magicians and in Grossman's follow-up, The Magician King. Fillory, it turns out in the Magicians is more "real" than people might want; it has all the ills--the violence, the death, the ugliness, the terror--that the real world does and that were left out of the children's book version of the world. The regular old non-Fillory world that Quentin moves through, despite the presence of magic, is also "real." Your problems don't disappear with the ability to cast spells, you still have to get a job, you still get screwed up relationships, you can still get hangovers, people can still die. All your dreams can come true, but in the real world, some dreams are nightmares. Some dreams you'd rather wake up from.

I said in my review of The Magicians that I thought Grossman was trying to tightly tie together a fantasy novel and a literary realism novel, blend the two genres seamlessly in a way that is rarely done. Plot/setting-wise, we're usually in a fantasy world start to finish, or we have two worlds and a portal between them but the two are wholly separate. One tends to be story-driven, one character-driven; in fantasy we're often given types or are focused more on characters' actions, while in literary realism we're given the life of the interior mind and focused more on personal and interpersonal conflict (yes, these are generalizations--hold your indignant examples of exceptions). This bifurcation isn't the case in Grossman's universe. And because he throws those worlds together, he can also give us a lot of meta-discussion on the role of fantasy in life (not to mention a slew of terrifically fun allusions to try and catch). It's a great concept, even if I thought The Magicians only partly succeeded. The failure in my mind wasn't one of conception or theme, but rather pacing and balance. Another problem is that it is really tough to create a character full of ennui and adolescent angst and not drive your reader a bit crazy.

Happily, none of those problems are present in The Magician King, which is going on my early list of top ten fantasy novels of the year. In just about every way, it is a better book than The Magicians, repeating the first book's strengths of characterization, concept, and style and improving in those areas The Magicians was a bit weak in. It is, I think, the work of an author more confident in both his material and his craft.
It begins with Quentin and his three friends from book one--Eliot, Janet, and Julie--ruling as the kings and queens of Fillory. As Mel Brooks famously said, "it's good to be king," you get good food, great service, nice rooms, lots of leisure time (especially in a kingdom that requires little administration). Despite that, Quentin, whom one would think is living his dream; I mean, he is literally in his fantasy world, isn't happy. He realizes this when an adventure presents itself to him early on when the four are chasing after the Seeing Hare (aka the White Stag from the Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe):

He was restless. He was looking for something else. He didn't know what it was . . . He wanted to stick his finger in it and see what happened. Some story, some quest, started here and he wanted to go on it. It felt fresh and clean and unsafe, nothing like the heavy warm lard of palace life. The protective plastic wrap had been peeled off.

Quentin passes on that adventure, but he eventually takes on another one--to sail to the Outer Island (aka the Lone Islands) of Voyage of the Dawn Treader)--which leads to yet another one--to find seven golden keys which may just be essential to saving not just Fillory, but magic itself. He's joined on the way by Julie, who has gotten stranger and more remote over time; Bingle, the winner of the Best Swordsperson of Fillory tournament; and Benedict, a surly teenage cartographer promoted to "field agent" by Quentin because he reminds him of his younger self; and one of the Talking Beasts, a sloth who actually talks very little.

We get several stories in The Magician King. One is a basic adventure story and it's a lot of fun, with twists and turns and inventive settings, situations, and creatures which I don't want to spoil by naming examples. The original fantasy elements have a true sense of wonder, while the borrowed/tweaked ones make the novel a joyful scavenger hunt of glittering allusions that never fail to bring a smile as you unearth them. Another story, told via staggered flashback chapters, belongs to Julie. It tells how she got her powers (she failed the entrance exam to Brakebills) and how she ended up with the others in Fillory. This plot line is much darker and more personal, a coming of age story for a young woman who has to fight her way through depression and obsession and who achieves her dream but, similar to Quentin in book one, at some cost. Because this storyline is broken up, and is less focused on general teen angst (Julia has actual cause for her anger and depression), cynicism, and privileged ennui then Quentin's similar "how I got my magic and grew up" storyline from The Magicians, it is nowhere near as off-putting. And it becomes darkly, tragically compelling by its end.

The third storyline is the threat to Fillory and to magic itself, which reveals some surprising information about the nature of magic and explores as well myth and religion. As one might expect, the storylines converge at the end, though I think in ways that most people would not have seen coming, at least not for the vast majority of the novel.

Precise, fluid prose, smooth pacing, and crisp dialogue combine to sweep you effortlessly along; I read it in a single sitting quite happily. The melding/blurring of reality and fantasy, besides being a theme of the novel (most of the characters face a choice--possibly false--between the real world and the fantasy world) keeps the reader on his/her toes, persistently breaking our readerly expectations at the most basic level of the sentence, something I found constantly stimulating. The reference to the "protective plastic wrap" above is one such example, along with people performing magic on their iPhones, using GPS, or improving a "classic" spell by using Google Street View, etc.

Characterization is consistently sharp and full, even for the secondary characters such as Benedict, Bingle, and yes, even the sloth. Julia grows the most, simply because we see her over a greater stretch of time, but both main characters make significant personal journeys to parallel their geographic ones. And these journeys feel and are presented as the real awakening from adolescence to adulthood. Here is Quentin at one point:
He'd known that adventures were supposed to be hard. He'd understood that he would have to go a long way and solve difficult problems and fight foes and be brave . . . But this was hard in a way he hadn't counted on. You couldn't kill it with a sword or fix it with a spell. You couldn't fight it. You just had to endure it, and you didn't look good or noble or heroic doing it . . .It didn't make a good story . . . He wasn't ready for it."

Welcome to life, Quentin.

Along with the coming-of-age theme, the novel plumbs a lot of real-world questions: What does it mean to be happy? Can we ever be happy?
When do we stop "becoming" who we are and can just be who we are? Do we ever? What makes a hero? How far should we seek our limits and once we find them, are we bound by them? Should we be? What responsibilities come with power? What is this need for fantasy that seems to be embedded in our consciousness--what are its benefits, its pitfalls?

The Magician King isn't flawless. How magic works in our world is still a bit fuzzy I think. It seems to me as if the magic here is like adding a drop or two of red food coloring to water and rather than having the water change color we end up with water and one or two drops of red. One character pretty much disappears (not any great loss at all). And there may be one or two other small flaws. But they are really minor complaints and hardly worth mentioning.

Is The Magician King a "fantasy book for grown-ups"? You know it'll get called that at some point, as did Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (which The Magician King feels a bit kin to--funnier, geekier, but without the richness of language and style) but the term makes me wince due to its obviously implication that fantasy isn't for grownups (I'd actually say if you can't enjoy fantasy your growth is stunted, but that's just me). But I might call it a "grown-up fantasy book": self-aware, sophisticated, thoughtful, confident, skilled and professional. Or I might just call it a great book and leave it at that. A must-read.
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