David Nickle's Reviews > The Magician King

The Magician King by Lev Grossman
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Oct 16, 11

Read in October, 2011

Quentin Coldwater is the kid that Harry Potter never was. In The Magicians, the first book in this series, Quentin is spirited off to Brakebills, a magical school on the banks of the Hudson where wizards-in-training to learn how to cast spells and hold their liquor. Quentin is a gifted student and learns to be a powerful wizard, but unlike young Harry, he is hurting for a destiny. The closest thing he's got is a yearning for the fictional world of Fillory, a magical land described in a Narnia-like series of books he read as a boy.

By the end of the first book, Quentin and his friends had made it to Fillory, fought their way to the thrones of that country, and fulfilled their destiny - which was, as it turns out, to cast spells and hold their liquor while lolling about on thrones.

The Magician King takes another stab at teaching Quentin about destiny, and what it means to be a hero; this time, somewhat more successfully. The novel opens with a bored King Quentin deciding to set off on a quest to collect taxes from a backwater island. It turns out that quests in Fillory are as common as wheel-ruts on a country road and just as easy to fall into, and Quentin and friends find themselves on a picaresque journey that takes them across seas, back to Earth and deep into the underworld in search of a set of magical keys.

The novel also delves into the backstory of Quentin's childhood friend Julia, who failed the entrance exam at Brakebills and had to learn spellcasting and liquor-holding on the streets. Her story, hard and tragic and true, emerges as the real emotional powerhouse of the novel. The stakes of Quentin's quest turn out to be miniscule against Julia's hard-fought journey into darkness. That those miniscule stakes amount to literally the fate of the universe says something about Grossman's growing power as a writer. With The Magician King, he's given us the rarest thing: metafiction with a heart.
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