The Magician King by Lev Grossman
Quentin and Julia are King and Queen of Fillory, the Narnia-like magical world, but he’s bored. So he tries to go on a quest, and ends up back on Earth. The rest of the story is his journey back to Fillory and his defense of magic itself against the gods. Chapters alternate between Quentin’s story in the present and Julia’s story in the past, an account of her unconventional magical education.
I just love so many things about Grossman’s style. It’s rich with allusions to high and low culture. His metaphors often come from technology, comparing magicians and the cosmos to hackers and computers (he does cover tech for Time). An example: “uploading magical knowledge into her starving brain by the terabyte.” He’s always bringing the high-minded hero-on-a-quest rhetoric down to earth by using slang or a curse word, or making a comparison to sex, drugs, or something equally mundane. And when I love a book’s style, I’m always tempted to put lots of quotes into the review, so get ready.
Since I was on the lookout for it from the beginning, I noticed all kinds of metafictional asides and incidents. The self-awareness I loved so much about the first book was back in full force:
“There is Deeper Magic at work here, my child. Even the gods must bow to it. That is the way.”
“Oh, right. The Deeper Magic. I forgot about that.”
The Deeper Magic always seemed to come up when Ember didn’t feel like doing something, or needed to close a plot hole.
There are lots of conversations about the proper attitude to adopt when pursuing a quest. How much do you plan, and how much do you allow the universe to steer you?
“But find [the magic keys] and do what with them?” Poppy said.
“I suppose once we have them all they’ll tell us. Or perhaps we’ll know when we have them. Or perhaps we’ll never know. They might just take the keys and pat us on the behind and send us on our way. I don’t know. I’ve never done a quest before.”
“So…the journey is the arrival, kind of thing?” Josh said. “I hate that stuff. I’m an old-fashioned arrival-is-the-arrival kind of guy.”
“For what it’s worth, they told me the realm was in peril,” Eliot said.
Quentin wonders whether or not he can be happy in the ‘real world’ after life as a king of Fillory, and finds there are things on Earth he didn’t see or appreciate because he was so preoccupied with dreams of supposedly fictional places.
It was Quentin’s first time in England, and he was amazed. …it looked more like Fillory than he’d thought anywhere on Earth could. Even more than Venice. Why hadn’t anybody told him? Except of course, they had, and he hadn’t believed them. …
Maybe she was right, he hadn’t given this world enough credit. Zipping along the narrow highways and shady lanes of rural Cornwall, the four of them could have been regular people. civilians, and would they have been any less happy? Even without magic they had the grass and that blessed country solitude and the sun flickering past between the branches and the solace of an expensive car that somebody else was paying for. What kind of an asshole wouldn’t be satisfied with that? For the first time in his life Quentin seriously considered the idea that he could be happy without Fillory–not just resigned, but happy.
It sounded to me like the tug of war every true bookworm has felt in her soul: the appeal of glimmering worlds constructed by prose versus the dingy but real life we find ourselves in when we look up from a book. Do we spend our lives reading and forget to live? Do we abandon the rapture we’ve found in the pages of a novel, to focus instead on what’s tangible? Do we immerse ourselves in fairy worlds and ignore the everyday magic around us? Where does true happiness lie, in imagination or reality? For someone who’s still figuring this stuff out, reading about someone struggling with the same questions is touching and cathartic.
The scope of this story is much bigger than in The Magicians. Quentin goes back and forth between Fillory, Earth, the Neitherlands, and the underworld several times. The cosmology of Grossman’s universe is revealed, with religious implications. I’d definitely compare the series to His Dark Materials, and that’s a high compliment.
The ending is beautiful and tragic and heroic, in all the best ways. It seems inevitable, but it hurts in just the way that you want a good book to hurt. It also makes me long for the next in the series.
The Magician King is a book I wish I had written.