The Magician King by Lev Grossman (New York: Viking Press, 2010. 400 pp.)

Born in 1969, Lev Grossman has a degree in literature from Harvard, and spent three years at Yale in the Ph.D. program in comparative literature. He writes for TIME as their book reviewer and as one of its technology writers. Codex (2004) became an international bestseller, and The Magicians (2009) was named one of the best books of 2009 by The New Yorker. In August of 2001, he won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He also has a wife and two daughters.

Sequels are Dangerous

Sequels are a dangerous thing. In looking at literature throughout the ages, sequels fall into one of two categories: either they rest on the laurels of their predecessors, or they continue to develop characters and plot even deeper than before. I think that The Magician King falls into the latter category for one reason in particular—Lev Grossman develops Quentin, the protagonist, as a character. In this sequel, the reader delves into the deeper inner-workings of Quentin’s soul. We find out that he, like so many of us, wishes to be a hero.

Didn’t You Know that You’re My Hero?

As a child, I paraded around the house wearing my Superman cape. I know, in retrospect the far more logical, far more bad-ass choice would have been Batman, but you can’t win them all. I thought Superman was the coolest—he could fly, shoot lasers out of his eyes, couldn’t be penetrated by bullets, and won the affection of a lady (Lois Lane). So, I wanted to be Superman, despite the red underwear eccentrically worn on the outside of his pants/tights. I ended up falling a little short (still working on the shooting lasers thing), but I think in my heart I still want to save the world, or at least save something.

I think that in every person’s core, there is a desire to be heroic. Now, I don’t mean that everyone wants to save the world from hunger, cure cancer, or even do something so minute as to give a dollar to someone who is homeless. I mean that people want to have a positive impact on their surroundings in some way—even just to one person. The protagonist, Quentin, is immersed in his new world, Fillory (discussed in a previous review), as a King, and yet he feels that his life is incomplete. Something just isn’t right. He wants an adventure. Or does he?

Quentin’s Heroic Quest

Photo by Ranga Krishna Tipirneni
Quentin, convinced that he needs to go on a new adventure (the previous having occurred in the novel The Magicians), does just that. He finds an excuse to round up a ship, in order to travel to an island in the middle of nowhere to collect taxes for the kingdom. While on the island, he finds a quest—to search for seven golden keys (whose purpose I won’t reveal to you, so the book isn’t spoiled). Along the way, he has some introspective revelations about his character.

“If he hadn’t been so tired, and a bit drunk, it probably wouldn’t have struck him the way it did. But as it was he felt himself filling up with a sense of—how could he put it? He thought he’d learned a lesson about the world, and now he was realizing that the lesson he learned might have been the wrong one. The right adventure had been offered to him, and he walked away. If being a hero is a matter of knowing your cues, like the fairy tale [the one about the golden keys] said, he’d missed his. Instead he’d spend three days faffing around on Earth for nothing, and nearly got stuck there forever, while Eliot was off on a real quest” (223).

What it Really Means to be a Hero

Finally, Quentin has an epiphany. Everything he is missing, the hole he had in his life, is because he didn’t realize he wanted to be a hero. And, he is given a chance.
Photo by Christopher Hawkins

Quentin finds himself to be a rather adept magician, and he follows the trail of the golden keys; he travels to Brakebills, Venice, and throughout Fillory. He and his friend Julia (who, as a side-note, also takes up a large portion of the novel with her own story and how she developed magician herself) even fight death in order to restore the world (again I’m purposefully not revealing some details here).

In the end, Quentin finds that being a hero frankly sucks.

“‘This isn’t how it ends!’ Quentin said. ‘I am the hero of this god-damned story, Ember! Remember? And the hero gets the reward!’

‘No, Quentin,’ the ram said. ‘The hero pays the price’” (396).

Quentin is forced to find, through his adventure that being a hero doesn’t mean that the grass is greener. Being a hero requires sacrifice—it happened to Superman whom I tried to so fiercely imitate as a child. And, sacrifice changes people for the better, as Quentin finds out.

This book surprised me, as I’m eternally dubious of sequels. They tend to lack substance, plot, and redeeming qualities. Not so with The Magician King. In fact, I liked it just as much as the first book, if not more. As a result, I’m very much looking forward to his next novel in the series, entitled The Magician’s Land, which will be heavily influenced by The Tempest, The Phantom Tollbooth, Casino Royale (James Bond Novels), and some P.G. Wodehouse of all people. I’m also looking forward to the FOX TV Series based off The Magicians, which is currently in the works—this series could turn out to be quite the entertaining enterprise.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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