I had really high hopes for The Magicians by Lev Grossman. The cover always stuck out to me when I browsed tables of new releases and bestsellers at bookstores. When I finally bought it and read it, I was not disappointed in the least. The Magicians was fast-paced in terms of the plot, speeding through five years of a wizard-in-training’s education at a secret magic college in upstate New York; however, in almost exactly 400 pages Grossman built a rather rich world with its own mythology. Hell, he even built mythology within that mythology with the “Fillory and Further” book series that the main characters read over the courses of their childhoods. Despite there being a lot of setting up and painting of the characters’ backstories, there was no shortage in plot and the ending was extremely exciting. What’s more, it very neatly set up for the sequel.
The Magician King Book Review
This second installment in the Magicians series could be considered Julia’s book since it fills in a lot of the details missing between the beginning of The Magicians, and when she ends up hovering outside the window of Quentin’s high-rise office at the end of the book. However, The Magician King also features the “hero’s quest” trope that’s common in a lot of classic literature. It brought to mind Homer’s The Odyssey and, to a lesser extent, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
Despite the emphasis on Julia in the second book, Quentin is still very much the primary narrator and protagonist who goes on a quest to find a quest. No, that’s not a typo. Feeling restless as pampered Fillorian royalty, Quentin decides that he needs to go out and find some noble quest to go on. Interestingly, The Magician King weaves into Quentin’s story details about Julia, who’s one of the two Queens of Fillory; we learn how she went from being a Brakebills reject to a hedge witch and then to the inexplicably powerful and weird character we see at the start of The Magician King. Oh, and the book also includes a quest to save magic before it can be wiped from the cosmos by the powers that be.
Before diving into the review, let me elaborate a bit about the plot of The Magician King.
At the end of The Magicians, Quentin—now with stark white hair after his encounter with the Beast at the end of the first book—had given up magic and asked for Dean Fogg to set him up with a magically-secured, high-level executive job in which he could spend his days playing games and watching movies on the computer in his high-rise office. However, in the final pages as he’s sitting at his desk the window to his office is ripped off the rise of the building and there, floating in midair hundreds of feet over the sidewalk, are Eliot, Janet, and Julia, who want him to come with them to Fillory and be the fourth ruler of the magical land. Quentin had found life post-magic to be lacking, so steps off the ledge and joins them in flight, going off to be the second King of Fillory.
The Magician King picks up two years after the end of the first book and shows Eliot, Quentin, Janet, and Julia being the Four Kings and Queens of Fillory. Ever since leaving Earth and becoming Fillorian royalty, Quentin feels like he’s finally fulfilling his destiny… well, almost. Although he has every luxury he could hope for and has gotten much more powerful due to having more time to hone his magic skills, there’s still something missing. Quentin feels his life lacks meaning and purpose, which is why he suggests a royal hunt: The Kings and Queens of Fillory will search for the Seeing Hare so they can ask it for a magical quest. Adventure is just what the doctor ordered, or so Quentin thinks.
They find the Hare in a small, perfectly-circular clearing, inside of which stood a large enchanted tree with a large clock embedded into its trunk, Fillorian-style. However, this tree was different: At least a hundred feet tall, its clock at least five feet in diameter, and it seemed to be writhing on its own as if caught in an invisible hurricane. Testing whether the area would transport him somewhere if he stepped into the circle, he shot an arrow at the tree and watched it freeze in midair, then burst into white sparks and fall to the ground as ash. However, when Quentin’s hunting companion Jollyby approaches, holding the Seeing Hare by the ears, the Hare exclaims that he sees “death and destruction, disappointment and despair.” Then Jollyby drops the Hare, falling dead to the ground.
Later that day, the Kings and Queens met to discuss what the possible cause of Jollyby’s death could have been as well as to discuss mundane Fillorian politics. Apparently the Outer Island, the easternmost point of the Fillorian empire, has fallen a couple years behind on their taxes. On a whim, Quentin volunteers to go in the stead of an emissary, and volunteers for Julia to accompany him. Perhaps adventure will find him on his trip to the Outer Island, Quentin thinks. And maybe this journey will be good for Julia, too.
Spending time in his castle and living the life of luxury has left Quentin yearning for meaning in the form of adventure. But while the others have gotten lazy and even put on a couple pounds while indulging in the lifestyle of a Fillorian ruler, Julia has been changing in a different way, somehow seeming slightly less human.
Julia hadn’t learned her magic the way [the others] had, coming up through the safe, orderly system of Brakebills. She and Quentin had gone to high school together, but she hadn’t gotten into Brakebills, so she’d become a hedge witch instead: she’d learned it on her own, on the outside… She was missing huge chapters of lore, and her technique was so sloppy and loopy that sometimes [Quentin] couldn’t believe it even worked at all. But she also knew things Quentin and the others didn’t… Her magic had sharp, jagged edges on it that had never been filed down… But Julia’s education had cost her something, it was hard to put your finger on what, but whatever it was had left its mark on her… Sometimes Quentin wondered exactly how expensive her education had been, and how she’d paid for it, but whenever he asked her, she avoided the question. (pp. 8-9)
And it wasn’t just Quentin who was noticing Julia’s increasing oddness. Eliot approached Quentin the night before the quest, wanting to clarify how it was that he and Janet met Julia and found out she was a witch. Eliot explained to Quentin some sort of dark ritual he’d seen Julia doing, and although he couldn’t tell what exactly the spell was meant to do, he could tell that she was trying to summon something that she’d lost or that was taken from her. And more importantly, he could tell by the way Julia sobbed afterward that it hadn’t worked.
After procuring the greatest swordsman in the kingdom—a man named Bingle—for their protection, Quentin and Julia proceed to the docks to pick out the right vessel to take them on their overseas quest. He was hoping to find the ship from one of the “Fillory and Further” novels, but the Swift wasn’t to be found. However, he found one called the Muntjac, though it was in utter disrepair, so he commissioned it to be renovated and returned to ship-shape, then they began sailing eastward.
Upon arriving at the Outer Island, Quentin and Co. meet Elaine, the Customs Agent of Fillory, and her small daughter Eleanor. After learning Quentin’s true business on the island—coming to collect the island’s overdue taxes—Elaine expresses surprise that Quentin isn’t questing for the key and after they take care of business and she gives Quentin a chest full of the solid-gold feces of the “gold beatles” they have on the island, she explains to him that the magical golden key is on the neighboring island, After. Before leaving, Elaine gives Quentin a book called “The Seven Golden Keys” and a hand-drawn passport from Eleanor before explaining that After Island is outside the Fillorian kingdom, which means he won’t be a king there.
The team makes it to After and finds the key in a chapel, lying on a velvet pillow on a stone table next to a yellowed slip of paper that said “Golden Key.” He picked the key up and, running on instinct, felt around in the air with it until he found something for the key to go into. With Julia’s hand in his, he opened a door in the air and stepped through, leading Julia through after him. It was too late when he realized where the door led. It had closed behind them, leaving them locked out of Fillory and standing in front of his parents’ house in Massachusetts.
They panicked for a moment with Julia on all fours, vomiting in the lawn. Finally, she stood and walked over to a sports car parked on the street, through a rock through it, and got in. She nicked her thumb with glass, whispered a chant over it, jammed her bloody thumb up to the ignition, and the car’s engine rumbled on. First, they drove to Brakebills, then eventually have to utilize a string of Julia’s connections from her time in the magic underground—where she learned to do magic—in order to track down someone in Venice who might be able to help them get back to Fillory. It becomes increasingly clear that if they’re going to get back to Fillory, it’s going to be Julia and her scary, mysterious magic that get them there.
In Venice, Quentin realizes that he recognizes this person to whom Julia’s connections have led them: It’s Josh, one of the Physical kids with whom Quentin, Eliot, and Janet (and Alice, RIP) went to Brakebills. In The Magicians, they used a magical button to get to Fillory and Quentin knew that Josh was the last person to have it. Unfortunately, Josh sold it to a dragon. Poppy, who is Josh’s cohort and pseudo-crush, is a scholar on dragons and helps Quentin meet the one that lives in the canal that runs through Venice. The dragon refuses to give up the button and tells Quentin that the end of magic is nigh.
Quentin, Julia, Josh, and Poppy venture to England to the Chatwin house in hope of finding the original portal that the Chatwin children used to get to Fillory in the “Fillory and Further” books. After some trouble, they make it back to Fillory and find Eliot, who has taken control of the Muntjac in Quentin’s absence and is questing to find Quentin, Julia, and the Seven Golden Keys, which they need to save Fillory. Luckily, Eliot has most of them.
There’s an exciting sequence on what would come to be known as Benedict Island, named after the cartographer that Quentin had hired and brought along on the original quest, in which the group procures the final key and Julia displays some rather extraordinary power. The group ends up taking a brief trip to the underworld in order to procure the last key, but none of the souls there can see Julia. They see Quentin, but not Julia, implying that she has no soul. When it seems they won’t be able to make it out alive, Julia’s plot thread is neatly wrapped up, and the group is brought back to Fillory.
At the end of the book, the gang makes it to the Fillorian World’s End, which is a thin stretch of gray beach along which a tall brick wall runs, with a single door. They save magic and the world, but Quentin must make a great personal sacrifice in the process. It spells happily ever after for virtually every character except Quentin, setting up nearly for the third and final book in the trilogy.
And there you have it. That’s my as-little-spoilers-as-possible, semi-detailed synopsis of The Magician King.
First thoughts after reading The Magician King
The Magicians set a really, really high bar. In fact, the first book was one that has such charm and nuance that it makes you hesitant to believe a sequel could compare, especially when some of the strongest parts of the book—like Quentin’s years of magical education at Brakebills—are closed chapters that couldn’t be incorporated in future installments. However, not only does The Magician King hold its own, but in some ways I’d say it’s even better than the first book.
The second installment tells two tales at the same time by alternating back and forth. In the “present,” Quentin and Julia are on their quest to first find the magical golden key, then to get back to Fillory from Earth, and finally to unite the Seven Keys at the World’s End to save magic and Fillory and the universe. The secondary plot, however, is all about Julia and her path to becoming a powerful sorceress. Unlike Quentin, Julia didn’t nail the Brakebills exam, but she somehow was able to retain some level of memory of the exam, which meant that she know a magical life was just within her grasp before it slipped through her fingers. And it drove her mad.
Julia’s story starts rather slow, beginning with her becoming a shut-in at her parents’ home and “waiting out” the magical world. We see the scene from the first book when Quentin returns from Brakebills for holiday break and sees Julia, but we see it from Julia’s perspective this time and can understand how it’s such a pivotal moment for both of them. It also shows us why Quentin comes to feel somewhat responsible for what Julia went through in her quest for magic since she had appealed to him to help her, to talk to someone at the school so they’d let her in or even to coach her himself. He blew her off, but in acknowledging that the magical world was real, it reinforced her determination to get for herself what Quentin was getting at Brakebills.
Instead of going to college, Julia stumbles across the world of underground magic. It wasn’t always easy and often involved her doing things she’s not proud of like having sex with men so they’d give her information or let her into the next “safehouse.” Eventually, she rose through the ranks, then was admitted to a secret, elite group that represented the best of the best. After proving herself and officially joining the group, they let her in on their plan: They were searching for a goddess, whom they called Our Lady Underground—a hopefully-benevolent underworld goddess with her mythology’s roots tied to the French countryside—and hoping that by invoking her, the goddess would grant them additional power. Unfortunately, that’s not how it all played out. The group gets tricked, most of them killed, and Julia ends up brutally attacked and her soul taken, which is why she seems to be slowly losing her humanity throughout the book. She’s reluctant to talk about her experiences, but she begins to fill Quentin in on what happened to her in her cabin on the Muntjac and throughout the rest of the book as Quentin asks her how she came to acquire the power she has with a technique that, by all appearances, shouldn’t work.
At the end of The Magicians when Julia was hovering outside Quentin’s office window with Eliot and Janet, I immediately wondered about her experiences since she was last seen in the book, which was when she showed Quentin the one “party trick” she was able to glean from the internet and was begging him to convince Brakebills to give her a second chance. Somehow Julia went from being a desperate wannabe with no options to becoming one of four powerful rulers of Fillory. From the get-go, I was very intrigued by Julia, so when I realized The Magician King would recount her experiences, I was ecstatic.
Julia’s magical education is probably the best thing about The Magician King, but that’s not to say that the rest of the book is weak. On the contrary, everything is incredibly well-planned, the pace is very smooth and steady, and every piece of the plot fits together like a neat puzzle. Even when you see characters from the previous book, like Josh, it just makes sense even while being somewhat surprising to see them. The stuff with the dragons was really neat, how there’s a dragon living in every river, and Quentin meeting the dragon and learning what’s happening and what his purpose would be on the quest to save magic. And when we learn why the original gods, the ones who made everything, returned to correct the “flaw” in their design that allowed magicians to access magical power, it ties Julia’s story to the Seven Keys story very nicely.
Grossman’s writing is as compelling as ever. For proof, read the scene where Julia and her crew encounter Reynard the evil jackal god—I dare you not to cringe from the edge of your seat. Or when Eliot is telling Quentin of when he saw Julia doing the ritual at the country club and realized she was desperate to get back something that was taken from her. The whole book is compelling from start to finish and if it’s not on even par with the first, it’s even better.
The Magician King: Bottom Line
I can’t recommend The Magician King more highly. Whereas The Magicians can and has been considered a darker and more adult analogue to Harry Potter, this second installment in the series takes an at turns lighter, at turns darker approach, creating this great juxtaposition and making for a very compelling narrative. The Magician King is about complacency, taking things for granted, about finding one’s purpose, sacrifice, and caring more for others than oneself. Moreover, the stakes are much, much higher in this second installment. With each page of Grossman’s Magicians series, it’s more and more clear that having access to such power has really high stakes. Although these characters can access magic in order to bend reality to their will, they also know that sometimes there are dire consequences. And Julia knows this perhaps better than any of the others.
Overall, I’d say that The Magician King was just slightly more enjoyable than the first book, though that shouldn’t be taken as a slight against The Magicians. There was more suspense this time around and I found myself more consistently on the edge of my seat than I was while reading the first book. With the fate of the entire multiverse in their hands, the quest seemed much more imminent. There’s this feeling like the clock is ticking, but it’s all written very beautifully. There’s even some humor and great one-liners, too.
For those who enjoy mystery, adventure, action, suspense, even a little horror, fantasy, and rich, original mythology, I enthusiastically recommend The Magician King and the Magicians series as a whole. I’m reading The Magician’s Land, the third and final installment, right now and I can’t wait to see how it all ends.