Lev Grossman, The Magician King [Library of Babel]

Lev Grossman's The Magicians never got a full entry to itself, but as I said when I mentioned it in this round-up post, I enjoyed it quite a bit. It's a magical school novel about recognizable American teenagers attending Brakebills, a sort of liberal arts college for the wizarding set, somewhere in the lower Hudson valley (presumably near the Lake of the Coheeries). It's not to all tastes, but it resembles my actual college experience a lot more than most other magical college novels, so I enjoyed it quite a bit.

It's essentially impossible to say anything about the new sequel The Magician King without spoiling at least some of The Magicians, but I will try to keep it to things you can get from the jacket copy. At the end of the previous volume, Quentin Coldwater, the chief protagonist of The Magicians goes off to the magical land of Fillory, a Narnia-analogue, along with two of his Brakebills friends and one friend, Julia, from before he went to magic school, who has somehow learned magic without Brakebills. At the start of this one, Quentin and friends are living the good life in Fillory, but trouble is on the horizon, and they soon find themselves drawn into a Quest with major implications for the entire universe.

The scope of the story broadens in this book, following two plots in parallel: Quentin's view of the quest going forward, and Julia's history from the time she failed the Brakebills entrance exam to just before she catches up with Quentin and company. These do not necessarily seem related at first, but the everything comes together at the end in a very satisfying way. This is a much more polished book than The Magicians-- not that the earlier volume was hackwork, or anything, but as is often the case with coming-of-age-in-the-modern-world novels, the plot sometimes reflects the characters' aimlessness. The Magician King is much more tightly plotted, so people who disliked the wandering nature of the first would probably like this book better (of course, you can't understand anything in this one without having read The Magicians, so it's not like you can skip right to this one.)

The greatest strength of the book, for me at least, is the narrative voice, which is one of those "tight third person" deals that sticks closely with one character, and comments on what they're doing in a tone appropriate to their personality. Like the characters, it's aware of the traditions of fantasy literature, and uses that to good effect, as in the opening passage:

Quentin rode a grey horse with white socks named Dauntless. He wore black leather boots up to his knees, different-colored stockings, and a long navy blue topcoat that was richly embroidered with seed pearls and silver thread. On his head was a platinum coronet. A glittering side-sword bumped against his leg-- not the ceremonial kind, the real kind, the kind that would actually be useful in a fight. It was ten o'clock in the morning on a warm, overcast day in August. He was everything a king of Fillory should be. He was hunting a magic rabbit.

By King Quentin's side rode a queen: Queen Julia. Up ahead were another queen and another king: Janet and Eliot-- the land of Fillory had four rulers in all. They rode along a high-arched forest path littered with yellow leaves, perfect little sprays of them that looked like they could have been cut and placed by a florist. They moved in silence, slowly, together but lost in their separate thoughts, gazing out into the green depths of the late summer woods.

It was an easy silence. Everything was easy. Nothing was hard. The dream had become real.

"Stop!" Eliot said, at the front.

They stopped. Quentin's horse didn't halt when the others did-- Dauntless wandered a little out of line and halfway off the trail before he persuaded her for good and all to quit walking for a damn minute. Two years a king of Fillory and he was still shit at horseback riding.

If that sort of thing appeals to you, well, read The Magicians first, and then read this. And be aware that this is a much better book in terms of plotting. If that sounds annoying, don't read either.

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I just finished the first one on Monday, and...I just don't know. I like his world, I like his magic, but these characters don't have a whole hell of a lot of appeal. I mean, these guys are handed infinite power and resources and they use it to become celebutants?! Not my kind of people, you know?

I agree that the characters in the first are not to all tastes, but they actually felt pretty realistic to me. It's basically carrying the magic school idea to a more logical conclusion than most such stories do. And having spent a large chunk of my life in and around elite private institutions of higher education, the characters fit pretty well with the observed types.

The second one brings in a POV character from outside the Brakebills circle, and one Brakebills person who is actually reasonably well-adjusted. And Quentin is less of an asshole in this one.