Cannonball Read V: The Magician King by Lev Grossman
Goodreads summary: Quentin and his friends are now the kings and queens of Fillory, but the days and nights of royal luxury are starting to pall. After a morning hunt takes a sinister turn, Quentin and his old friend Julia charter a magical sailing ship and set out on an errand to the wild outer reaches of their kingdom. Their pleasure cruise becomes an adventure when the two are unceremoniously dumped back into the last place Quentin ever wants to see: his parent’s house in Chesterton, Massachusetts. And only the black, twisted magic that Julia learned on the streets can save them.
The Magician King is a grand voyage into the dark, glittering heart of magic, an epic quest for the Harry Potter generation. It also introduces a powerful new voice, that of Julia, whose angry genius is thrilling.
I’ll start by saying I liked this sequel better than the first book, The Magicians. I found the pacing to be more consistent, which may be because less narrative ground is covered overall in this story. Chapters alternate between the present, in which Quentin and Julia try to get back to Fillory, and the past, which explain Julia’s backstory.
More importantly, The Magician King worked on redeeming Quentin in my eyes. He’s written here as still flawed, but not insufferable. A big change seems to be that in the first book, despite some moments of insecurity, he still more or less rests on his laurels of being a “genius” and a magician. He’s complacent and egotistical, and especially once he finds out he’s a magician, he flaunts a nauseating superiority complex. However, here in the sequel, as a king of Fillory, he seems to want to do more and prove himself. This change is evident fairly early on, when Quentin insists on embarking on a tax-collecting voyage that others point out doesn’t need to be undertaken by the king of Fillory. Despite their misgivings, Quentin senses an adventure calling to him, and his restlessness at sitting in the castle drives him toward the unexplored destination. When he is directly challenged, such as when he is confronted with Julia’s mastery of street sorcery, he sometimes reverts back to his superciliousness, but overall by the end I’d consider him much more humbled and respectful than he was at the end of the first novel.
The narrative chapters focusing on Julia herself were also an engaging, welcome addition. Her introduction and training in the world of magic is a fascinating — and sometimes devastating — counterpoint to Quentin’s (rather sterile in comparison) magical education at Brakebills. For all of the Brakebills graduates’ posturing about their magical superiority, the trials Julia faces in order to reach the upper echelons of street wizardry seem just as, if not more, challenging than those posed to Brakebills students throughout their education. And though during this go around, Quentin does seem to demonstrate himself as able to solve problems and conjure appropriate spells on his own, Julia demonstrates on numerous occasions that she is just as good, if not better, than he is. The catch, though, is that Julia has achieved all this at the price of part of her soul. She’s no perfect Mary Sue; she’s empathetic and intelligent, but deeply troubled on a level that the other characters don’t understand.
I wasn’t completely satisfied with the end of this book. As much as I rag on Quentin, what ended up happening to him seemed deeply unfair. Since this will allegedly be a trilogy though, I won’t harp too much on it. Overall, I’d say that while the premise and plotline set up in the first book (kid discovers he’s a magician! learns magic! finds new world!) is more immediately gripping than this one (king got shut out of his world and needs to get back! quest for magic artifacts that will let him do that!) the writing is a lot tighter here and the characters slightly more relatable.
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