Quentin Coldwater returns and he is now both a magician of Earth and a king of Fillory, Lev Grossman’s version of Narnia. Quentin is in search of a quest, the one that’s for him and him alone, and it doesn’t take long for him to find it.
It also doesn’t take long for Quentin to begin wryly reflecting on the world around him, and Grossman can hardly resist either. Between them, Lev and Quentin manage to make allusions to just about every nerdy, geeky, suburban aspect of North American life that Grossman thinks his audience can think of, ranging from iPhones to D&D to John Knowles’ A Separate Peace. Keeping up on these inside jokes can get a little tiresome, but who are we to scoff at something that clearly brings Grossman so much satisfaction?
Besides, this self-aware atmosphere allows Grossman a lot of freedoms — ones that few fantasy writers enjoy. For example, Fillory allows Grossman to create impressive high fantasy moments, such as Quentin’s hunt for the Seeing Hare, a Unique Beast that will foretell the future (death and despair, unfortunately). However, Grossman is also able to describe swords and sorcery using the parlance of our times. Everyone will have their own favorite line, but mine might have been “if you’re enough a power nerd, there is nothing that cannot be flowcharted,” not even comparative religion studies. Even Quentin, who dresses like a king of the Renaissance, looks at the people in Fillory and wonders “what it was like to be so unselfconsciously melodramatic. Nice, probably.”
However, if a clever, amusing voice were the only thing driving The Magician King, it would surely be received as a disappointment. Instead, Grossman demonstrates that he has honed his fantasy chops. Critics will find it difficult to simply label The Magician King as “Harry Potter for adults” as they did with its predecessor. There’s just too much plot, and readers will almost certainly enjoy reading a clever rendition of their favorite trope, whether it be dragons, trickster deities, or even a brief war of the gods. Grossman has done his homework, and it shows. Even the sword dueling is quite impressive.
Clearly, Grossman has matured, and I think it’s fair to say his protagonist has as well. Quentin’s ennui about the world was appropriate for The Magicians, but would have felt a little strained here. Now, Quentin’s reflections are less prone to clever whining and more akin to intelligent epiphanies. When Quentin attempts to learn to use a sword, he finds it difficult and reflects “that was the thing about the world: it wasn’t that things were harder than you thought they were going to be, it was that they were hard in ways that you didn’t expect.” Well said, Quentin.
The Magician King is a very enjoyable fantasy, one that is sure to impress fans of The Magicians and that will also hopefully satisfy Lev Grossman’s detractors. It’s clear that he has the potential to become one of the best authors SFF has to offer.