It took me more than a year to get to the sequel of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, in spite of the fact that I found the first book very thought provoking. Maybe it was precisely because it was so intellectually demanding that I took my time to pick up the next. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I waited till now to do it, because I don’t think I would have connected to The Magician King as deeply as I did if I had read it a year ago.
The Magician King picks up soon after The Magicians leaves off. Quentin, Eliot, Janet and Julia and the kings and queens of the magical land of Fillory, Quentin’s childhood fantasy. The royal life is starting to get a bit boring, though, so Quentin decides it is high time for an adventure. Accompanied by a band of misfits (including the mysteriously changed Julia), Quentin sets out for Outer Island, the easternmost post of his empire, where he finds a mysterious key that sends him back, dramatically enough, to the cold streets of Chesterton, Massachusetts, and back to the real world. Quentin and Julia quickly realise that the adventure they find is not always as grand as the one they might imagine, and even when things do turn out as dramatic as Quentin might wish, the price he has to pay is not one he might have chosen at all.
The Magician King is a great follow up to its predecessor. If The Magicians was about a bunch of directionless college kids with access to seemingly unlimited power, its sequel captures the aimlessness and quarter life crisis that assails many over educated, under employed and entitled twenty somethings. As great as Quentin is (and I totally sympathise with his needing-to-be-a-hero angst), the character who really spoke to me in this book was Julia.
Like Quentin, Julia’s life changed the day she sat that examination in Brakebills. Unlike Quentin, Julia didn’t get into university, and it destroyed her. The Magician King narrates, in flashback mode, her struggle to learn magic on her own, one that involves long bouts of depression, loneliness, and ultimately, a terrible sacrifice. Julia is the smart kid who was dealt a raw hand by fate, or destiny, or whatever magical being holds the playing cards in a human life. The girl who’s always followed the rules and worked hard and is used to overachieving, and then suddenly things spiral out of control and life lands her hard on her back. Funnily enough, she reacts to this loss in a manner that might sound familiar to a lot of crisis-ridden twenty somethings:
She was dipping a toe in the pool of bad behaviour and finding the temperature was just right. It was fun being a problem. Julia had been very very good for a very long time, and the funny thing about that was, if you’re too good too much of the time, people start to forget about you. You’re not a problem, so people can strike you off their list of things to worry about. Nobody makes a fuss over you. They make a fuss over the bad girls. In her quiet way..Julia was causing a bit of a fuss, for once in her life, and it felt good.
Julia watches Quentin from afar, sees him get brighter, happier, ahead in a field she had never once considered for herself, but when denied access to it, hungers for all the more. Grossman describes the differences between their attitudes to magic thus:
When he walked into that room he’d buckled right down and killed that exam, because magic school? That was just the kind of thing he’d been waiting to happen to him his whole life. He practically expected that shit…
Whereas Julia had been blindsided. She had never expected anything special to just happen to her. Her play for life was to get out there and make special things happen, which was much more sensible…from a probability point of view..
While Quentin is the classic fantasy fan boy who yearns for the kind of adventures he’s read about all his life, and then ends up in one, Julia stumbles into one by accident, and then realizes it’s something she wants. Magic ends up messing with both of them, of course, but while Quentin almost seems to deserve it (almost…), Julia has a much rougher experience. As a result, while Quentin is blithely ironic and stylishly detached from his new magical universe (or pretends to be), Julia is openly dedicated to her art, and will go any distance to get something down right.
James Potter versus Hermione Granger, if you will.
What I loved about The Magician King was the characters’ idealistic and rather naive desire to ‘do something’, to make big things happen now that they were adults living the dream. I think it’s exactly what assails a lot of liberal arts grads (I’m speaking from personal experience here) when they leave their schools—what happens now? What do you do with all the lessons on history and literature and human endeavour in the real world, a world that doesn’t seem to care what you think about Prufrock’s meanderings? Surely there is more to life than work and sleep and making money? Quentin and his fellows find that meaning sometimes, in snatches, but they still experience an almost overwhelming sense of muted surprise. Being the king of Fillory is wonderful, Quentin reflects, but is that all there is for him after four years of breaking his back, learning spells? After such knowledge, what purpose?
Harry has graduated from Hogwarts, but there are no more bad wizards to chase down. Frodo destroyed the Ring and didn’t manage to catch that ship to the West. Rand mastered the secrets of channeling only to be told that the Dark One was a myth and his services wouldn’t be needed anymore.
Magic isn’t always the answer, evidently. And even if it is, you’re not sure you should have ever asked the question in the first place—just ask Julia.
The Magician King is, finally, a great read and Grossman is a genius. Call yourself a Potter fan or a Narnia nut? This book is definitely for you.