Lev Grossman – The Magician King (Book Review)

The Magician King cover

Lev Grossman – The Magician King

It’s difficult to review Lev Grosman’s The Magician King without spoiling major events from The Magicians. In fact, you shouldn’t even read The Magician King’s book jacket before finishing the first book. But since spoiler-free reviews of this second book are so rare, I’m going to do my best to provide one.

The Magicians was a sort of twisted, adult Harry Potter, replacing the wizards with autistic nerds who found that magic didn’t automatically give their lives meaning or direction. This may sound like a formula for cynical, overly-clever trash, but it worked thanks to its mix of literary sensibilities and a sincere love of the source material. The Magician King is the continuing adventures of Quentin and his friends. The main character is now (slightly) more mature and (usually) less whiny, but no more satisfied with his life. Despite a fast-moving plot that takes several sudden turns, this feels in most ways like a true sequel to The Magicians. Clever and incisive, it manages to capture both the joy of fantasy children’s stories and an understanding of the real world waiting when you grow up.

In fact, this book starts out even stronger than the first, with the characters and status quo already established, and the reader very invested in what happens next. I laughed out loud twice in the first chapter. Also, a frustrating loose plot thread from The Magicians is explored, with a character’s full backstory explained.

As the book goes on, though, it seems to be missing some of the elements that worked in The Magicians. Where that book second-guessed its genre trappings, this one embraces them fully. The Magicians hinted at logical systems that drive magic and the magical society; The Magician King just says that of course the world is filled with beetles who poop gold and beloved fairy-tale Kings who rule with unquestioned authority. One of the defining scenes of the first book had its characters reject a magical figure whom children would have accepted; in this second book, that character is right and unassailable. In fact, the main plot of The Magician King centers around a Quest, and once our protagonists are called to it, they learn that Quests are just a matter of wandering around waiting to stumble on to the MacGuffins.

Despite all that, The Magician King succeeds very well on its own terms. Each of its four parts is dense enough with story to feel like its own novel, and the characters are a lot of fun to follow. Though I have quibbles with a few character portrayals late in the book, the conclusion is nearly perfect. Unlike the somewhat-arbitrary ending to The Magicians, this one gives each character exactly what they deserve with the precision of a fairy king meting out judgment. Exactly right for the characters, fair to the readers, and with some knowing commentary on what it means to be a responsible adult in reality, those final pages show Grossman at his best.

Grade: B

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