[Sound the Second Novel Alarm! Spoilers for The Magicians ahead. I mean it this time.]
The Magicians was an exercise in literary frustration for me. I loved it. It was wonderful. Its adherence to explaining away its every mystery absolutely infuriated me. Reading it a second time allowed me to be well aware that the breathtakingly horrific things that occurred in the unfurling of Lev Grossman’s fantasy novel cioppino would not remain the unexplainable night terrors of a magical world beyond our reckoning and to simply enjoy the story for how it was told rather than for how I might have liked it to be told, yet it remained that I was not wholly satisfied by the neatness of the entire story.
As a crash course, The Magicians is something of a melange of asshole twenty-somethings coming of age, Harry Potter, Narnia, Lovecraftian horror, and the Dungeons and Dragons Saturday morning cartoon. It’s a careful blending of a great many influences into something that manages to both overtly and subtly reference, tweak, and cast down the cliches of fantasy novels while reveling in their joys at the same time. It is in many ways the definition of a loving homage, particularly in the way we so often tear down our loved ones. It follows one Quentin Coldwater learning that he too is a wizard, ‘arry, attending a magical school, finding love, losing love, finding love, and finding talking goats. It contains one of the single most horrific chapters I’ve ever read in a fictional book wherein the consequences of magic are explored with a mindbogglingly tense peek into something beyond a veil that is later ruined for the sake of a teeth gnashing (and crunching) villain to put a pat bow on the whole thing. It is a problematic book that is mostly problematic because of how much I wanted to love it unconditionally. If I were reviewing it, it’d get its four stars easily.
But it’s not The Magicians that I’m here to speak of very nearly meeting my expectations, but rather its sequel. The Magician King returns us to Quentin Coldwater’s story almost precisely where it ended in the prior tale when two of his cohorts from Brakebills (Hogwarts by way of the Ivy League) and the former love of his life arrived to drag him off to Fillory (Narnia by way of .. well, it’s pretty much Narnia) to fill the fourth vacant royal throne. From the very beginning, it’s clear that we are right in the thick of our protagonists once again being so above the process of being characters in a fantasy novel, chattering about magical beasts and potential quests like armchair warriors on the message board of their choice even while in the process of living the life out. If The Magicians annoyed you with its too-aloof characterizations, The Magician King won’t do much to change your mind. The protagonists of this series have enough snark to fill a comment thread on an episode of Girls to the brim, but Quentin remains optimistic about magic and fantasy in a way that drives half of the narrative with an infectious desire for things in our world or any world to be greater than what can be seen on the surface.
Wonderfully though, Quentin does in fact only drive half the narrative of The Magician King. He finds himself on a quest, the sort of quest that can only exist in a place like Narnia or Fillory or Middle Earth or Xanth or Pern or — you get the point. It’s a quest with a capital Q, and the rules and realizations of being on a proper quest make up some of the most interesting and fun parts of Quentin’s story as he learns just how much destiny can truly pull you along for the ride in a story where destiny is a tangible, real thing that abhors being ignored. His search for seven golden keys to wind a dying world is precisely the sort of thing fantasy protagonists have been doing from the very beginning of the genre, and he is well aware of just that fact while being equal parts thrilled, suspicious, amused, and heartbroken by the implications of truly undertaking a quest. If the story was all about the magician king of Fillory and his quest to save the world viewed through a postmodern lens however, the book would be everything I had feared it to be from the promise of a story set in Fillory. Amusing to read, but slight in a way that does a disservice to the premise. Quentin may be the heart of the story, but it’s Julia’s past where The Magician King finds its soul.
Julia Wicker was the great love of Quentin Coldwater’s life in the way of young, nerdy men who write the story of their lives in their heads and their heads alone can be. In other words, she was his good friend, dating his best friend, and had no interest in him as a lover even while Quentin pined endlessly for her. In The Magicians she is a footnote, the sad story of what happens when the world of magic opens to you and then cruelly slams the door in your face. While Quentin was accepted to Brakebills and began a fantastic journey through magical learning and an eventual trip to an honest fantasy realm, all that we saw of Julia was a girl who has grown dark, desperate, and damaged when Brakebills denied her entrance and she became obsessed with what she could not have. The Magician King allows us to follow Julia’s admission to the Brakebills test, the removal of the veil meant to keep her from knowing of the existence of another world, and the long, painful path she walked to join Quentin as royalty of Fillory. From the very beginning we know that Queen Julia is not quite the same woman as the desperate hedge-witch last seen in The Magicians, and we spend her half of the novel learning just what becomes of those who are left outside the gates. Julia’s story is one of addiction, suffering, and education through unsavory means. You can take away any number of metaphors from its magical safehouses and the dangerous practice of unlicensed magic, or the way that obsession can gnaw away at a person until there is almost nothing there, or the way that addiction can do the same. In the end, there is a tragedy that is most certainly awaiting Julia’s story, but it’s unfathomable just what form it will take to reconcile the Julia of The Magicians with the Julia of The Magician King. Her story is sad, gripping, frustrating, and funny, and has its moments every bit as horrific as the appearance of The Beast in The Magicians. The relative lightness of Quentin’s quest in comparison is almost a relief, spacing breaths of air into the dark depths of an unsanctioned wizard’s drowning in the street education of things men wasn’t supposed to know to begin with.
The Magician King, like its predecessor, is not perfect. It manages to strike a very new story from the first while still noodling in many of the same ranges. We still have a fantasy world that feels familiar, yet dangerous in ways it should not, and a coming of age tale of a young person learning magic. We still have punctuation marks of loss and horrific consequences for those who meddle in extramortal affairs. The pop culture references can sometimes feel a bit unnaturally placed, even while it’s still wonderful to read a novel riffing on fantasy novels in a setting where those fantasy novels actually exist. For a sophomore story in a series, it’s refreshing that it can be read on its own as a complete tale rather than merely covering the gap between the first book and the inevitable trilogy-capper to come. To anyone who has loved Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia and then wondered about the lingering real world applications of a setting where magicians exist in secret or cupboards can take us to other worlds entirely, The Magicians and its sequel are almost must-reads just for the joy of someone answering those questions in their own way. Even without the meta-textual commentary on other fantasy, the books stand on their own two feet as enjoyable fantasy stories with a protagonist who’s optimism and drive are tempered with realistic doubts and fuck-ups along the way. If the forthcoming The Magician’s Land continues this trend, then we might actually have ourselves a trilogy that could stand the test of time for years to come. No mean feat for a series that can be reduced at its simplest down to “Harry Potter with teenagers that actually act like teenagers”.