Review: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

The Magician King: A Novel (The Magicians)

Last week I mentioned the best read all year and teased you about what it was. I then spent a week wrestling with a review that would do this book justice. I failed. All the words seem trite and little; awesome, amazing, wonderful, magnificent, etc. Over the weekend at WorldCon the Hugo Awards were given out. Lev Grossman won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. It was so well deserved and makes me glad that people agree with my assessment of his talent. Without further delay here is my review of The Magician King, the best book you will read this year.

 TitleThe Magician King  Author: Lev Grossman
 Rating:  Publisher: Viking/Penguin
 Year Published: 2011  Fiction/Non-Fiction: Fiction
Genre: Fantasy; Magical Realism; High fantasy, Parallel universe Why Picked: I was so in love with The Magicians I really couldn’t wait to get my hands on this one.
 Number of Pages: 400

The Magicians was praised as a triumph by readers and critics of both mainstream and fantasy literature. Now Grossman takes us back to Fillory, where the Brakebills graduates have fled the sorrows of the mundane world, only to face terrifying new challenges.
Quentin and his friends are now the kings and queens of Fillory, but the days and nights of royal luxury are starting to pall. After a morning hunt takes a sinister turn, Quentin and his old friend Julia charter a magical sailing ship and set out on an errand to the wild outer reaches of their kingdom. Their pleasure cruise becomes an adventure when the two are unceremoniously dumped back into the last place Quentin ever wants to see: his parent’s house in Chesterton, Massachusetts. And only the black, twisted magic that Julia learned on the streets can save them.
The Magician King is a grand voyage into the dark, glittering heart of magic, an epic quest for the Harry Potter generation. It also introduces a powerful new voice, that of Julia, whose angry genius is thrilling. Once again Grossman proves that he is the modern heir to C.S. Lewis, and the cutting edge of literary fantasy. (Viking)


This is a hard review to write without spoilers. But I am going to try because everyone needs to read this book so we can all have a big Internet coffee and chat about it.

I am always afraid of sequels to books I love. There are so many “what ifs” to worry about. What if it’s bad? What if it’s so bad it ruins the first one? What if the author does unspeakable things to setting, plot, or characters I came to love? At the same time, when I read a really good book, I don’t want it to end. So as I started Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, I was both excited and apprehensive.

Gabrielle over at Viking/Penguin emailed earlier this summer and asked if I might be interested in an ARC. (She probably heard me screaming the answer before she ever got my emailed reply.) I had been recommending The Magicians all summer. At the pool, at the park, at family gatherings, when people have asked I said “you have to read this book. It is magical. No, really it is about magic and it will be the best book you read all year.”

I was wrong. The Magician King will be the best book you read all year.

The Magician King is extraordinary. I do not even have the words to describe this story. It is in turns charming, heartbreaking, horrifying, snarky, beautiful, witty, and, well, I could go on. Whereas The Magicians was about college aged kids coming to terms with getting what you ask for; The Magician King is about deciding what you need. While the majority of The Magicians was magical realism; The Magician King is high fantasy. While I loved The Magicians in spite of its main character I love The Magician King because of them. I was so excited to get Julia’s back story. Why didn’t she pass the test? How did she learn magic? Where do non-Brakebills people find it? How does it affect them?

Some months ago, when Cat Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making was released, she wrote an essay on John Scalzi’s blog “whatever“. He has an on-going series called “The Big Idea.” Her contribution was about heroines saying “Yes.” She talked about how many of the classic female characters get whisked away into magical situations or new magical lands and spend the whole story trying to return to their mundane, normal life.  She compares this to September, the main character of TGWCFSOM, who embraces the adventure, who chooses to go.  Her Big Idea is that girl, the girl who says YES. 

I bring Valente’s essay up for a few reasons. First, Julia could have easily been the girl who is thrown into a magical setting, if in The Magicians she had not failed the entrance exam.  But she did fail. The Magician King, tells us Julia’s story between being rejected by Brakebills and becoming Queen of Fillory. It is, like TGWCFSOM, the story of a girl who says yes.  Actually she doesn’t just say yes, she actively goes out and hunts magic down, hits it over the head and drags it home.

Second, Julia says yes to the land of Fillory.  She chose to go to the magical land and live there and never wanted to look back.  And Fillory rewards her for that. For me, this is the true story of The Magician King. While Quintin’s story is that of the “Sacred King” willing to sacrifice everything for his land and the people he is responsible for, Julia’s story is the story of the rest of us who want desperately to say yes to being whisked away by a hurricane, fall down a rabbit hole or stumble through the back of a wardrobe. We just want a world wild with magic and, at least in Julia’s case, are willing to pay a huge price for it.

Valente says, in her Big Idea,

“… I would have run wild through a magical kingdom and never looked back. Talking animals? Yes. Witches and monsters? Yes. Dark queens? Absolutely. Give it right here. I would have said yes to all of it.”

Growing up that girl, that one who would have said yes to any hope of magic is one of the main reasons I love this book. Because in The Magician King magic and magical realms are something you can have access to even if you are not the “special hero” of the story and even if you are rejected by the portal. And that is something I could say yes to.