A teen-turned-king finds his way in dark fantasy world
Lexington native Lev Grossman serves as the book critic for Time magazine, so it seemed fitting that his 2009 bestseller, “The Magicians,’’ was as much a work of literary criticism as it was a novel. In it, Grossman reimagined two of the most popular fantasy series of all time, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and C.S. Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia,’’in a darker key. He replaced Hogwarts with Brakebills, a magical college where students drink, curse, and sleep around. Instead of Narnia, he gave us Fillory, an otherworldly kingdom terrorized by the Beast, a magician who, when a young, earthly boy, was the victim of sexual molestation. Grossman delighted in pointing out the realms of experience ignored by traditional fantasy, and his irony appeared at times to border on hostility.
At the center of “The Magicians’’ was Quentin Coldwater, a mopey teenager from Brooklyn, N.Y., who one day discovered that all the things he had read about in his beloved fantasy novels were real. Grossman’s new book picks up two years after “The Magicians’’ left off. When “The Magician King’’ opens, Quentin has apparently achieved his dream, reigning alongside three of his friends as kings and queens of Fillory. With the Beast defeated, though, there isn’t much for a king to do, and Quentin soon becomes bored, unhappily enveloped in “the heavy warm lard of palace life.’’
Luckily for Quentin and for us, things don’t stay boring for long. The Neitherlands, the portal that enables travel between worlds, begins to fall apart, and a force soon emerges that threatens to drain the world of magic and wipe Fillory out of existence. In order to prevent this, Quentin and Julia, his one-time crush from Brooklyn and now queen of Fillory, must find the mysterious seven keys that wind up the world. Things become even more complicated when the pair is unexpectedly transported to Chesteron, Mass., the epitome of anodyne, unmagical suburbia (probably inspired by Grossman’s hometown, which he has described as “a suburb of Boston where the first battle of the American Revolution was fought and absolutely nothing has happened since.’’).
“The Magicians’’ is full of casual sex, excessive alcohol, and hip dialogue, as if Grossman is trying to persuade readers that fantasy can be edgy. “The Magician King’’ is a more assured creation. In this sequel, there are still allusions to other works of fantasy, from Lewis’s “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’’ to “Doctor Who’’ to “Highlander,’’ but these seem to be less satirical jabs than a fanboy’s acknowledgment of his precursors. Grossman is now content to tell his own story. In one particularly inventive scene, Quentin journeys to Fillory’s underworld to find that it resembles a recreation center, where shades listlessly play badminton and other dreaded games from high school gym class. Grossman mines the scene for both humor and pathos.
At one point, a character warns Quentin against passing outside of Fillory, saying, “You’re not king of any of that. Out there you’re just Quentin. Are you sure that’s going to be enough?’’ This novel is largely about learning limits. Quentin must come to the realization that, as the Aslan-like ram god Ember tells him, the hero is not the one who “gets the reward,’’ but rather the one who “pays the price.’’ This is an idea familiar to anyone who has read “The Lord of the Rings’’ or “Harry Potter,’’ and it is a sign of Grossman’s growing strength as a novelist that he is willing to invoke in his revisionary work this most traditional lesson. “The Magician King’’ is a rare achievement, a book that simultaneously criticizes and celebrates our deep desire for fantasy.
Anthony Domestico, whose essays have appeared in Commonweal, New Haven Review, and the San Francisco Chronicle, can be reached at email@example.com.