Written by: Lev Grossmann
#2 / 3 of The Magicians series
Rating: 3.5 / 5 stars
*Please do not read unless you have completed reading “The Magicians (The Magicians #1)” by Lev Grossman.*
Summary: After completing their quest, Quentin and his friends are now the kings and queens of Fillory, the magical land they saved. However, the days and nights of royal luxury are starting to pall. After a morning hunt takes a sinister turn, Quentin and his old friend Julia charter a magical sailing ship and set out on an errand to the wild outer reaches of their kingdom. Their pleasure cruise becomes an adventure when the two are unceremoniously dumped back into the last place Quentin ever wants to see: his parent’s house in Chesterton, Massachusetts. As they travel the universe they both worked so hard to escape in search of any way back to their thrones and friends, they find that their mundane world held much more magic than they ever expected – but will it help them get back to Fillory?
“Magic: it was what happened when the mind met the world, and the mind won for a change.”
Review: After completing The Magicians, I was intrigued to see more of this world that Grossman created of magic and multiple universes easily coinciding and being fairly reachable. Perhaps one of the most incredible things about Grossman’s writing is how casually he writes about everything, and how he somehow manages to pull this off with a certain level of ease. The world he has created is obviously immensely complex, but he doesn’t try as hard as other “fantasy” writers (here put in quotations because I still am not convinced The Magicians fits under this genre) to bog down the reader with too many details with his new world. Normally, I like a very specific guide to be able to see what the author sees, but I think the opportunity for me to imagine Fillory and Earth’s underground magic world actually supplements my reading experience by activating my imagination in unexpected ways.
That being said, this book doesn’t receive a higher rating not because of Grossman’s quality of writing, but because this book just seems so disjointed from the first. Granted, I didn’t read them back-to-back, but I feel as if I read them close enough together that I didn’t completely miss when previous plot lines were mentioned or older characters were brought back in. I missed my dose of Elliot, who was my favorite character in the first book and was mentioned in little to no detail this one; and I had too much of Josh, a character painted as a magician who was successful due to luck rather than actual competence in the first book, yet suddenly developed the ability to do complex magic. Also, I’m not 100% sure that I enjoy where the book is headed, with the introduction of various deities that I will not disclose due to fear of spoilers. Although his book definitely didn’t suffer from second book syndrome, as it held a lot of action and details onto its own, I feel as it lacked a solid connection to its predecessor, and I am worried that this disconnection may carry over to the next book.
As for the plot, I really enjoyed that most of it took place on Earth and showed the amount of magic that had always been, and would always be, present in Quentin’s homeland that he had all but written off. Although I do hope to see more of Fillory and other lands in the third book, I think that Grossman’s decision to write most of the plot in Earth showed basically how ignorant and spoiled Quentin was and how, to juxtapose him, brilliant and hardy Julia was. Additionally, I was fascinated by the ease with which they passed between the worlds, combined with the complexity of what happened between each, whether it be sailing to the end of the sea in Fillory to search after mythical golden keys, or jumping through portals on Earth to avoid other mundane transportation systems like planes. Each different location they went to, it felt like there was a separate story, and each was more compelling than the last. However, his chaos made me forget, for a large part of the book, what the main focus of the book was in the first place – finding the golden keys and figuring out what they do, which I am honestly still confused about. Although several new plot twists and/or devices were introduced and failed to be concluded, Grossman did so in a way that his second book didn’t seem merely to be created just as a bridge between the first and third; it became its own.
Admittedly, I hate Quentin Coldwater… but I also love him. Even though there are so many times when I want to reach through the pages and smack Quentin upside the head, Gibbs-style, and his whining and constant state of discontent and arrogance sometimes make me want to slam the book shut to take a deep breath, I surprisingly love this, because you can tell that Grossman wrote him this way with incredible purpose. The reason I say this is that, for those of you who read The Magicians and either haven’t picked up The Magician King yet or have just started it, this is the Quentin you know. But for those of you who were turned away from the series for this very reason will be relieved to hear that Quentin does begin to evolve beyond the ignorant magician boy and arrogant Fillorian king – and it is so weirdly natural. Once again, I’m amazed by Grossman’s ability to take a character I had previously enjoyed due to how annoying and naive he was to someone who I could respect, all without making it blatantly obvious or cliche.
Additionally, I was pleasantly surprised by how I felt about Quentin’s sudden co-protagonist, Julia, who we enjoy in only a few scenes in The Magicians. However, the Julia in The Magician’s King is a completely different character than the self-righteous arrogant Harvard-bound prodigy child who unceremoniously led Quentin on to learn the secrets of Brakebills after she failed her own entrance exam. Through Julia’s memories, we see the underbelly of magic in the “real world”, as Julia has to go through unconventional methods to become a magician in her own right, and that allows for my respect for her, even in some of her more arrogant episodes, to grow. Also, Julia’s character and her story acts as a desperately needed wake-up call to Quentin to get off his lazy royal butt and stop complaining about the cards that have been so easily dealt to him.
Another reason this book only received a 3.5 / 5 from me is that all of the other characters – and there are a lot – all fall superbly short of my expectations for Grossman. I guess one could argue that the next imperative character is a Fillorian mapmaker-apprentice named Benedict who has even less of a personality than Quentin, but Grossman tries to play him off as professional only and thus, admirable… but he doesn’t really do anything to help out a ton, and later it seems like he was used only as a plot device. Grossman decides to revive the roles of Josh, one of Quentin’s Brakebills companions, and Penny, his nemesis from Brakebills, only to act as segues between scenes or reasonings why other characters are introduced; however, the two characters I actually care about – Elliot and Janet – might as well have been footnotes. As for the new characters besides Benedict, there’s Poppy, Josh’s “friend” who somehow, at some point, becomes Quentin’s “friend” and was useful for about five seconds; a hand-picked warrior atrociously named Biggle who had the personality of a wooden plank; the “support group” that new magician Julia joined and destroyed; and far more that are not even worth mentioning. I’m probably mostly just bitter because this book had way less Elliot than I was expecting, but it just seemed as Grossman spent a lot of time creating characters just so Quentin and Julia weren’t talking to themselves.
Admittedly, The Magician’s King performed better than I had hoped, as I am a strong believer in Second Book Syndrome. The Magicians itself was, truthfully, a little bit of a challenge for me to get through, whereas its successor was not. However, Grossman still needs to work on more character development, or just limit the number of characters he does introduce, and work more on connecting the different stories taking place in each book. Ultimately, I hope that The Magician’s Land will connect to its predecessors better than The Magician King did, as the series has much promise to finish strong.