Reality and Fantasy Blend Effortlessly in Lev Grossman’s ‘The Magician King’

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Quentin and the gang are back in The Magician King, the second installment in Lev Grossman’s highly popular Fillory series, following up the New York Times Bestselling The Magicians. Everything there is to love in book one is present in spades in book two, and with new magic-filled adventures comes more realistic, personal struggles as we get deeper inside the heads of these lovely, screwed-up characters.

Quentin is bored and wants to go on a quest.  You know, because being one of four kings and queens of the magical world of Fillory isn’t quite enough for him anymore. He sets out with Julia, one of the queens and a good friend (and a former love interest who still pangs his loins from time to time), on a ship, sailing to far-off Outer Island to collect back taxes. While there he hears the tale of the missing seven keys and decides to set out to find them, knowing that this is truly the adventure he’s destined to undertake.

With renewed purpose he travels to another far-reaching island, and with luck gets his hands on one of the keys. But when he inserts it into an invisible door and opens it, he and Julia end up in the one place neither of them wish to be: Earth. With no seeming way to return to Fillory, and with Julia’s strange, distant behavior a constant concern for Quentin, they set out to find a way back to the magical land they call home – and to Eliot and Janet who were left there to rule with no idea where there friends had gone. The journey across Earth leads Quentin and Julia to encounter both friend and foe, and with quick thinking and a little magic, they hope to make their dreams a reality once more.

Lev Grossman has a way with words and story-telling. I’ve read a lot of fantasy in my life, both child and adult, and this book (and book one) is in a class of its own.  The mixture of realistic, relatable language and action of the characters, combined with the completely fantastical elements that make the story magic, is an amalgamation I have never read anywhere else. And that’s what I love about them. Quinten, a King of Fillory, on a quest to save the universe while dealing with talking animals and magical keys and whatnot, still says fuck and pees and likes to get his rocks off just like the rest of humanity. It is absurdly, unabashedly human, and Grossman manages to get inside the heads of these characters in a way that I rarely experience in any form of literature.

Quentin’s struggles felt wonderfully familiar, thanks to growing accustomed to his voice in book one. However it was Julia who really owns this book. She grows from a minor character in The Magicians to one of the most prominent presences in The Magician King. Her haunted reality is a puzzle to Quentin, one he pursues continually as the story moves forward, and throughout the book we pop into her thoughts as she leads us on the journey that started years prior, when she failed the Brakebills test and was left out in the cold. Her tale is intense and interesting, and as the main story was also extremely compelling, it was with a combination of glee and frustration when the story jumped from one account to the next (usually after something really interesting occurred, so of course you’re dying to know what happens!)

The way the author handles fantasy in The Magician King is also superb. Grossman plays homage to C. S. Lewis in creating the world of Fillory, obviously so, which is fun to see in and of itself. But try to imagine adult characters stomping around in Narnia, and all the realness that comes with that, and you’ll begin to glimpse why this book is a blast to read. I kind of felt like I was doing something naughty, venturing into virgin land, untouched by adults.  But that’s what’s great about it; all the perks and troubles and struggles and accomplishments that come along with being a grownup are thrust into a world that feels like it belongs to children, thanks to the parallels drawn from familiar stories of our youth. This juxtaposition is what makes The Magician King unlike anything else I have ever read, and I savored the experience.

The Magician King was at times hilarious, sad, violent, poignant, and not least of all very, very human. It took me to a place of magic and wonder while keeping me grounded and able to relate. Reading it was truly a pleasure, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes their epic fantasies with a side of lost innocence and a dash of in-your-face realism. Read The Magicians first, and then you can sink into the pleasure that is The Magician King and enjoy all of its wonders.

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