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Review: ‘The Magician King’ by Lev Grossman

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By Lev Grossman

Viking, 416 pages, $26.95

Updated: August 21, 2011 2:28AM

The Magician King, the immensely entertaining new novel by Lev Grossman, manages to be both deep and deeply enjoyable. The story is set in parallel worlds where magic saturates, seeps or is deliberately rationed among people, animals and gods.

Fillory, Earth & the Neitherlands are where Quentin Coldwater and cohorts go about their personal quests within interesting plot twists and satisfying character expansion. The Magician King is a sublime submission, the second book of a trilogy. The first book, The Magicians, was a sweet read, but this one is fantastic. We can hope the final installment of the trilogy will exceed the high bar set with this book and be the best fantasy book ever written. (Such good-natured hyperbole indicates just how much fun was had reading this The Magician King.)

Two years have passed since Quentin Coldwater earned one of four crowns of Fillory. King Quentin’s friends King Eliot and Queen Janet, fellow graduates of the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, and his high-school friend Queen Julia, hold the final three crowns for their deeds at once harrowing and triumphant in The Magicians. Since his life has become all servants and fancy dress, Quentin leaps at the chance to leave Castle Whitespire, to sail for Outer Island to collect overdue taxes. Coincidentally, Outer Island is also alleged to be the hiding place for “the key that winds up the world.”

Spurred to believe this key rumor to be fact by the final words of a dying friend, Quentin embarks on a quest. He thinks tax collecting (key finding) may be just the ticket to the heroic, action-packed lifestyle he has sorely missed. Queen Julia joins him along with a plethora of brilliant characters from this magical world.

Julia and Quentin quickly find the world-winding key and end up, sadly, with a huge shock, and very far away from Fillory. While hunting for a way back to their magical realm, they learn that something has gone very wrong in the Neitherlands, and that the key they found in Fillory is one of seven required to stave off impending disaster across all worlds.

With his sparkling, geek culture-inflected prose, not only do we get to see the sites and sights of different worlds, but also Grossman drags us through to the book’s convincing conclusion. Along the way, using time-shifting, first-person narration between Julia and Quentin, the book offers so much about how they have approached their magical lives and how they give their lives meaning. Their very different voices are even more interesting than the ones of talking animals in Fillory and dragons in Venice.

Grossman’s heroes are complicated and tremendously appealing. By writing such strong characters so well, The Magician King squares up to a few questions at the very root of our modern condition: Who are we? How much is enough? Are we our choices or our outcomes? And, if I finally get all that I have dreamed of, then will I be happy?

Comparing this book to any other is difficult, but at times echoes of A.L. Kennedy and Terry Pratchett arise each merely for cunning phrasing or a familiar quirk in a minor character. Earnest one-to-one comparisons to C.S. Lewis should not be made with these books. The Magicians Trilogy is clearly homage and at the same time a respectful detonation of Narnia. The Julia story line alone manages to confirm the conflagration. Lewis could not have written this book.

M.E. Collins is a local free-lance writer.

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