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Book Review: The Magician King, by Lev Grossman

The Magician King (The Magicians #2)The Magician King by Lev Grossman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Magician King, by Lev Grossman
★★★ ½ (rounding up to 4)
Synopsis: (from the book flap) Quentin Coldwater should be blissfully happy. He escaped a miserable Brooklyn childhood for Brakebills, a secret and exclusive college for magic in upstate New York. When he graduated he discovered that Fillory, the magical utopia described in a series of children’s fantasy novels he never quite outgrew, was real.
Fillory was a far more dangerous place than Quentin could have imagined, and he faced unspeakable tragedies there. But now Quentin and his friends have become the kings and queens of Fillory and, under their reign, Fillory is a peaceful kingdom. But Quentin is restless. He hasn’t escaped the scars of his past, and the peace and luxury of his life in Fillory will prove more fragile than anyone expects. After a royal morning hunt takes a sinister turn. Quentin’s doubts get the better of him. With Julia, a queen of Fillory and Quentin’s high school friend, in tow, he charters a magical sailing ship and heads off to the farthest reaches of Fillory. He is in search of adventure—the thrill and sense of purpose only a heroic quest can bestow. Instead his journey takes them to the last place Quentin wants to be: his parents’ house in Chersterton, Massachusetts.
Quentin is a magician and a king, but even he can’t rescue them from suburban America. Only the dark, twisted sorcery Julia learned in the seedy back alleys of the Brooklyn underground magic scene can put them on the road back to Fillory. But when Julia takes center stage, so too does her story, and with it the secret of the terrible price she paid for her power. As Quentin and Julia follow a trail of clues from Brakebills to Venice to the home of the real-life children who appeared in the Fillory novels, they gradually discover a more sinister, more powerful threat than any they’ve faced. And they must fight death and despair in a world that is very far from the bright, simple fantasy novels they read as children.
In The Magicians, Lev Grossman shattered the limits of conventional fantasy writing by imagining magic as practiced in the real world by fallible and capricious people, without the clear absolutes of good and evil most fantasy heroes steer by. The Magician King sets these young magicians on a n epic quest deep into the dark, glittering heart of magic to reveal the unexpected paradox behind being a hero. It also introduces a powerful new voice, that of Julia, whose angry genius is thrilling and terrifying. The juxtaposition of her rage and Quentin’s yearning creates a novel of resonant psychological complexity and reckoning. The Magician King; once again proves that Grossman is a modern heir to C.S. Lewis and the cutting edge of literary fantasy.
In A Sentence: a decent sequel, but overall an amazing series that is seriously earning more and more of my respect.

My Thoughts: At least I’m keeping to my usual standards with this one. Middle books are never my favorites in a series. I don’t care how exciting it gets, I never like the middle books by themselves; they’re just a means to an end. Compared to the beginning and end books, the middle ones are always rated lower on my shelf.
With that said, I still enjoyed this book, and this trilogy is turning into quite a powerful one. There’s something so simple about the plot, yet so real and intense that you get a little blinded by it. It’s kind of like watching Star Wars: A New Hope: the plot is actually pretty darn minimal, but when you look at the overall effect, it ends up being pretty awesome. That’s how I felt about The Magician King: the plot was pretty straightforward, but still, something unique came out of it that you can’t help but appreciate. I don’t know what it is that makes me like this story so much, but there’s something there that puts it above all other stories. Maybe it’s the writing, or maybe it’s how the plot flows. In any case, there’s a certain je-ne-sais-quois about the story that gives it an edge.
I have to say, I loved the character development here. You learn more about Julia, whose story is actually kind of tragic. And you get to see Quentin grow up some more, which is a bit of a relief for those who were annoyed by him previously. Being an empathic reader, I really like 3-D characters; they have to have some depth to them, some amount of complexity and definition that make them come alive, to the point where they look ready to leave the pages themselves and join you in our world (which in the case of this book, they pretty much did). Good character development almost always means good story.
While I’m pondering it, I really did like the writing. There’s something about the style that is simple yet flows very well. The tone of the novel is set very nicely, and you get a good feel for what the characters are experiencing in the moment. I really don’t get how Grossman is able to do it, but he does it, and he does it beautifully. I definitely appreciated the writing, for sure.
There isn’t any wow with this book. In fact, there’s not much of a wow with the series so far. A lot of this stuff in the story you’ve seen some version of it before. But the journey is still immensely unique and fantastic, and that requires a lot of talent from the author. Grossman knows his stuff. Not only that, he knows how to use it!
Would I recommend it to everyone who likes fantasy? Probably not. Some may see this as a Chronicles Of Narnia rip-off, others might find it underwhelming, and still others might hate the book for various other reasons. But it is still worth a read if you’re interested. If you look at the writing technique, and how the elements of the story come together, the story is beautiful and well done. Just be warned; this isn’t a book that you can just pick up and put down whenever you feel like it. Like Julia in her journey to become a magician, you have to be committed to the story, and willing to spend some time with it. Somehow these books are very dense and slow-going; I can’t seem to finish these stories in less than two weeks, which for me is a ridiculously long time to dedicate to a book. Oftentimes when I put the book down, I lost the momentum and had trouble getting back into it. But once you get the inertia going, it’s pretty smooth sailing. You just have to commit.

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