"The Magician King" (Viking), by Lev Grossman: With the magical world he created in "The Magicians" and returns to in this entertaining sequel, Lev Grossman seems to want to convince you of two things: Magicians are just like us. Their (imaginary) world is just much cooler than yours.
"The Magician King" returns to Fillory, a faraway land reminiscent of C.S. Lewis' Narnia that's been redrawn with its own quirks and pop-sensible nuances. Grossman colors in that picture more fully in "King" while sticking with the group of angst-filled spell-casters who survived the first novel. The story begins several years after the events of "The Magicians."
Quentin, the first book's chief protagonist, is back and serving as a sort-of junior king in Fillory's royal court. His pre-wizardry high school sweetheart, Julia, is also royalty, though she is a bleak presence, at times barely recognizable to Quentin. The other royals are classmates of Quentin's from the prestigious wizardry academy of Brakebills, Eliot and Janet.
None of these kings and queens seems particularly happy, least of all Quentin. His capacity for sorcery is only equaled by a similar threshold for myopia and ennui. Being in charge of a magical land with few problems, even after he and his friends managed to nearly die while ridding Fillory of an evil king, is boring and he feels that he needs a quest. Lurking in the background of this unhappiness is a still unresolved grief for the loss of Alice, his beloved girlfriend, who was killed in the final battle of "The Magicians."
Quentin won't abide his restiveness, so he invents a pseudo-adventure for himself. Then events, as they tend to do, spin out of control: What was a simple tax collecting mission on the other side of Fillory's map becomes a truly epic quest to find a set of magical keys critical to the survival of Fillory, and all magic. It will see Quentin jumping from Fillory to the real world and back, talking to a riddle-spitting dragon at the bottom of an Italian canal, engaging in epic battles and, no surprise here, questioning himself and what it all means in the grand scheme of life.
Presented alongside the present magical events is a back story told from Julia's perspective. It is an equally, at times more gripping, story about how Julia came to acquire her magical skills. In the first novel, she failed a magic test that Quentin passed, but a spell that normally zaps the memory of that process failed. Julia has become obsessed with magic and uncovers an underground world of amateur wizards. Her voyage of discovery is plainly not a pleasure cruise. It's actually where the plot goes to its darkest corners, and ends in a series of events that are practically unfathomable.
Primarily with Julia, whose relative newness makes it easier to achieve, but also with Quentin and a handful of more peripheral characters, Grossman manages to test the notion of what a fantasy novel should be. "King," filled as it is with talking sloths, magical passports, interdimensional travel and the like, is a fantastic escape. But there are things you cannot escape no matter the setting, Grossman would maintain. Wizards, like people, are three-dimensional beings and their complexities need to be embraced into the narrative no matter where it's set. Same goes for the talking sloths.
That's not to say Grossman always succeeds in holding himself up to this standard. While the main characters are well drawn, others feel hollow. Poppy, a new addition to Quentin's coterie, does not feel fully rendered. And Janet, a complex figure in the first book, is virtually absent from the proceedings here. "King" likewise does not feel quite as literary or polished as its predecessor. The plotting is slightly more scattered, the writing a bit less glitzy.
It's a sacrifice readers should be willing to make, though, for a sequel that is more entertaining and gripping than its predecessor - a high standard to begin with. The dual-band stories of "The King" are both epic in their sweep. And what's lost in sparkle is made up for in this novel's magical grit. Grossman once again has produced a book that allows you to embrace a fantasy story without feeling like you have to suspend human emotions.