With the surprising-to-some popularity of HBO's adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones this spring, and the record-breaking box office of the final Harry Potter film this summer, there's been a lot of ink spilled over the lack of respect accorded to fantasy writing in mainstream culture, and spirited arguments extolling fantasy's virtues.
These articles and op-ed pieces overlook one salient fact, though. Fantasy as a genre doesn't need to be sold to the mainstream: It's already there. The problem is a matter of label bias, not of value. After all, what are such beloved films as The Wizard of Oz, It's a Wonderful Life and Field of Dreams if not fantasy? The Harry Potter series and The Lord of the Rings aren't among the top-grossing films and books of all time because of some geek ghetto. People might scorn the label “fantasy,” but they don't need to be sold on the fantastic; they love it already.
And they'll love The Magician King, the new novel by Brooklyn writer and Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman.
The Magician King picks up some months after the climactic events of The Magicians, published last summer. The Magicians focused on Quentin Coldwater, an earnest adolescent from Brooklyn who finds himself, surprisingly, attending Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy rather than the Ivy League school he had planned for, training to be a magician.
After five years of higher education, he discovers that a Narnia-esque magical kingdom from books he loved as a child actually exists, and he and a group of like-minded young magicians journey to Fillory via a mystical city of portals, the Neitherlands.
When they arrive, though, they realize that the reality of Fillory – and of magic itself – is much different, darker and bloodier, than it is in the books. After a brutal battle, which costs Quentin friends and parts of his body, he returns to the real world and turns his back on magic, he believes, for good. He is drawn back to Fillory, however, by his surviving friends, and takes his rightful place as one of the country's kings.
Many of the reviews of The Magicians drew a comparison to the Harry Potter novels – natural, given the magical boarding school aspects of both – but it’s closer kin to Donna Tartt's A Secret History. Like Tartt, Grossman well-captured the pressure-cooker environment of an elite college, the agonies of being young and the violence and heartbreak that arise almost as a matter of course.
As the new book opens, months as a magician king have left Quentin paunchy and restless, and in the opening pages of The Magician King he undertakes a quest to salve his boredom and ennui. It's hardly a quest befitting a king, however, let alone a powerful magician. Recovering a derelict ship, Quentin journeys to the Outer Island – one of the most remote parts of Fillory – to collect back taxes. What started out as a lark, however, turns darker and epic when Quentin learns of seven golden keys, each larger than the last. The keys are the subject of folk stories and Fillorian fairy tales, but Quentin discovers they're not only real but that the continued existence of Fillory, and of magic itself, might depend on his finding them.
His quest takes him further out into the Eastern Sea, and to such magical places as World’s End, the Neitherworld (now crumbling and imperilled) and, well, Brooklyn.
One of Grossman’s great strengths in The Magician King (as it was in The Magicians) is finding the balance point between the fantastic and the banal, the magical and the everyday. His characters, for example, are powerful magicians, but they’re fully rounded and utterly human. Quentin, for one, is mopey and lovelorn much of the time, and for him, the magical has become boring. It takes the quest to remind him of both magic’s power and his humanity (but then, that’s what quests do).
The most compelling character, however, is Julia, one of the queens of Fillory, who accompanies Quentin on his quest. Quentin began The Magicians with an unrequited love for Julia, who became a marginal character in that novel after she failed the entrance exam to Brakebills.
In The Magician King, she is as significant as Quentin, and half of the book is given over to filling in what she was doing while Quentin was at school. Rather than taking the academic path, she found magic on her own, exploring a fantastic netherworld of seedy magicians, safe houses and compromises physical and emotional in pursuit of her magical calling. “She’d talked to people Quentin never would have talked to, picked up things his professors would never have let him touch. Her magic had sharp, jagged edges on it that had never been filed down.” It’s a harrowing story, and a powerful counterpoint to The Magicians.
Unlike The Magicians, which occasionally lagged as it followed Quentin through his schooling, The Magician King is a breakneck read. It will also, ultimately, break your heart, but that’s what growing up – the greatest quest of all – will do.
Robert J. Wiersema is the author of Before I Wake and Bedtime Story. His first non-fiction book, Walk Like a Man: Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen, will be published this month.