Review: The Magician King

Posted: August 12, 2011 by in Books We Love (5/5 single_star) Meta: Lev Grossman, Fantasy, Reviews by Bryce Moore

Many people have strong feelings about Lev Grossman’s 2009 book THE MAGICIANS (Amazon). It’s inspired no small amount of passion—both for and against. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, it tells the tale of Quentin Coldwater, a young man who’s about as diehard of a Narnia fan as you can get. (Except of course Narnia isn’t actually Narnia. It’s called Fillory—but the parallels are too strong for there to be any doubt in the reader’s mind.) He’s a genius, extremely gifted, and kind of a major self-obsessed jerk. You know—like a lot of teenagers you know, except Quentin really is a genius. But he hates his life, and he wishes more than anything that Fillory were real, and that he lived there, instead.

Spoiler alert for those of you who haven’t read THE MAGICIANS already: Fillory is real, and Quentin ends up living there, instead.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. THE MAGICIANS is best described as a realistic Harry Potter. Quentin goes to a school for wizards, he befriends a group of like-minded self-obsessed teens, and they end up kind of saving the world.

Some people loved the book because of the shot of realism it injected into a genre that usually has more than a bit of rose-colored tinting going on in it. Some people hated it because of how mean and petty the main characters can be. Full disclosure: I was a huge fan of the first book. It made me realize some of the assumptions so many fantasy books make—it asked important questions, and the answers to those questions weren’t always pretty. What if the magical world the main character discovers doesn’t change his life for the better? What if the problems he had before—character flaws, unmet dreams, etc.—still exist? And when you think about it, doesn’t that make sense? Why should walking through a wardrobe suddenly make everything else okay?

THE MAGICIAN KING (Amazon) picks up where THE MAGICIANS left off. Quentin is now a king in Fillory (much like the Pevensies are kings and queens in Narnia at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). And he and his fellow narcissists are off hunting a magical rabbit. Quentin has grown bored with how easy his life has become, and he’s wishing things would get a little less boring.

Wish granted.

He embarks on a quest that begins as more of a lark but takes a terrifying twist for him when it ends up dumping him back in the real world. (Yes, that’s fairly spoilery, but it’s also boldly stated on the book’s jacket flap, so I don’t suppose I’m spoiling too much for you.) That’s about all of the plot I want to give you, though. You don’t need much more, because you’re likely going to only read this if you’ve read the first book. In that case, you find yourself in one of a few groups.

First, you loved the first book. If that’s you, then by all means: full speed ahead. Grossman does a fantastic job bringing the story to the next level, and exploring the same world in a manner that doesn’t feel tired or hackneyed or been-there-done-that.

THE MAGICIAN KING is well-paced and intriguing. It has a strong literary flair to it, but enough adventure, magic, and humor to keep it from feeling stuffy.

Second, you hated the first book. If that’s you, then I’m surprised you’re even reading this review. There’s not much here for you if you absolutely loathed book one, as some people did. It’s still Quentin, and he’s still, well… Quentin. So move along, folks—nothing to see here.

Third, you were on the fence about the first book. You liked the literary feel of it, but the characters bugged you. If that’s you, then let me tell you a bit more. THE MAGICIAN KING introduces an important viewpoint character: Julia. She’s far less self-centered than Quentin, and her sections help to balance the book in a way that The Magicians could never quite reach. Instead of being bogged down in Quentin’s mind for unending stretches, you get the chance to see this world through someone else’s eyes. And while she has flaws and challenges herself, she is much easier to accept, identify with, and root for. (Really, it would have been disappointing if she didn’t have flaws—that’s one of the strengths of this series. The characters are real, with believable shortcomings that go beyond Hermione-is-a-know-it-all and Draco-is-snide-and-mean-and-evil.)

It also helps that this book starts with Quentin already having learned lessons from his experiences in the first book. You don’t have to relive that same journey again; he grows in different ways this time.

THE MAGICIAN KING is a quick read, well-paced, and intriguing throughout. It has a strong literary flair to it, but enough adventure, magic, and humor to keep it from feeling stuffy. As long as you didn’t hate the first book, you should definitely check this one out.

  • Recommended Age: 18+
  • Language: Lots. Plenty of it plenty objectionable. This is an adult book. It would easily be rated R, for all the reasons you can think of.
  • Violence: Yes. Not pervasive throughout, but there are some very graphic, disturbingly violent scenes in the book.
  • Sex: Quite a bit, including one very specific, highly disturbing scene. Like I said, this would be a hard R movie if it’s ever adapted and sticks close to the source material.


  • Thomas W says:

    You're right about the “Harry Potter with realism” on this series, though that's much of why I didn't like The Magicians (and didn't finish reading it). Having two kids who recently graduated from high school, I've noticed that too much “youth” fiction involves a protagonist best described as the poster child for multiple psychiatric diseases.

    I guess I'm the abnormal one, I went through adolescence without any major problems and can't identify with most “coming of age” books.

    There's also the idea that to be “literature” or “adult” a book needs to provide some sort of titillation or shock value by “pushing the envelope”. All too often this shock value is the only thing supporting the book. I'm afraid that was my opinion of The Magicians (at least, for the 1/4 or so of the book I read).

    This trend reminds me of going to a local comedy club some years ago. I found that the comedian's “humor” was based on how many four letter words he could use rather than anything I'd consider actually funny.

    • Bryce's Ramblings says:

      The first quarter of The Magicians was the weakest, I thought. It was a book that got better the more you read it, or at least it did for me. But it certainly wasn't sugar coated. At the same time, having worked at a university and been around college students, I can say with full confidence that Grossman's depiction wasn't gratuitously vulgar.

      Still, not everyone's cup of tea.

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