With The Magician King, his sequel to The Magicians, Lev Grossman has provided yet another fantastical world of magic geared toward adults. This time, however, he goes a bit heavier on the religion and theology, while still weaving a captivating tale of becoming, discovery, and loss.
Grossman left The Magicians with one wicked cliffhanger. We pick up The Magician King with the return of Quentin to Fillory, a magical land reminiscent of Narnia. In fact, he and his friends, Elliot, Julia, and Janet, are Kings and Queens of Fillory. When out on a hunt for the “seeing rabbit,” tragedy strikes and sets in motion a journey to prevent both the collapse of Fillory and the disappearance of magic everywhere.
Though the book’s title, The Magician King, directly refers to Quentin, it is really two parallel stories. One half of the book follows Quentin’s quest to find seven golden keys, while the other tells the story of Queen Julia’s rise to great magician heights. While all the other magical characters were undertaking their education at Brakebills (think a hipper version of Hogwarts), Julia was on an independent quest to become a hedge witch. And it is this story, one so full of so many highs and lows, of desperate loneliness, confusion, depression, abuse, self-sacrifice and ultimate triumph, that is, in my opinion, the heart and strength of the book. Julia’s journey isn’t necessarily a coming of age tale so much as it is one of her becoming who she has been meant to be, a transition that stretches far beyond some evolution from childhood to adolescence or on to adulthood.
At the same time, Quentin’s experience is also a story of self-discovery and becoming. Quentin’s most valuable lesson might be in learning that playing an invaluable role in someone else’s story is one of the greatest parts you can play. Though much of his story in the book involves his often-frustrated quest for the keys, a metaphor for his own selfish desires for heroism and immortality, it too offers rich insights into themes of atonement and sacrifice.
In The Magician King, Grossman begins to scratch deeper into the origins or sources of magic in the worlds that he has created. He does this through Julia’s insatiable appetite for learning and perfecting magic. Along with her “independent classmates,” they undertake their own research (journey) that leads them to a surprising interreligious conclusion regarding the origins of magic.
In the same dichotomy between Quentin’s experience at Brakebills and Julia’s independent magic training, we find interesting implications for contemporary reflections on and work in higher education. What role(s) does the academy play in shaping our educational experiences? What should they be willing to sacrifice to adapt to changing times and scenarios? What are, if any, the constants that should continue to define educational experiences across disciplines and locations?
The Magician King is full of Grossman’s signature humor and style, one that recalls pop culture references right alongside his own fantastical creations as if the two belong together in seamless fashion. It’s difficult to gauge the book’s ending. That is to say, whether or not Grossman has an idea for a sequel. There’s certainly more to unpack here with the major characters involved, so here’s hoping for more thought-provoking, magical insight from such an entertaining writer.