Lev Grossman’s last book, The Magicians, was an interesting read, often described as a grown-up Harry Potter. In fact it was almost literally that — the story of a young man on the verge of graduating from high school who finds himself invited to a secret college for magicians. Grossman’s magical world is far less magical than Rowling’s, though it does have spells and travel to other worlds (owing more on this score to the Narnia books than to the Potter series); in many ways it’s disturbingly pedestrian, with the young magicians as obsessed with sex, drugs and self-loathing as any other urban young people of the twenty-first century, except they have these magical powers and often aren’t sure how best to use them.
The Magician King takes the story a step farther — main character Quentin and his friends are exactly where Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy were near the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They’ve found the magical kingdom of Fillory, won the war there (at considerable and tragic cost) and are now ruling as joint kings and queens — but what next? Without a quest to complete or a villain to defeat, turns out ruling a magical kingdom is actually kind of … dull. Quentin starts to wish for something more.
This is a promising start, but the novel suffered from two problems that caused my attention to waver at times. Though Grossman’s writing is always inventive and often funny, the plot took a very long time to get going — it was three-quarters of the way through the book before I felt anything was really happening. Also, I didn’t really warm to Quentin as a character — I didn’t like him much even in the first book, and until very near the end of this one I didn’t care much what happened to him. The one thing that kept me going was the story of Quentin’s co-queen, his only friend from his pre-magic days, Julia. Julia didn’t get into the magic school Brakebills and became a magician on her own, and nobody knows how her missing years were spent, but they’ve obviously left her quite damaged. Her story is told in flashbacks alternating with Quentin’s and I found the Julia storyline really compelling.
As for Quentin, I wish I liked him better and cared more about his fate, since he’s carrying the weight of the whole narrative, but I was still engaged enough with the concept and storytelling (and a bit by Quentin himself, near the end) that if there’s going to be a third volume, I’ll read it.