Note: This will have spoilers of the first book in the series, The Magicians. If you have not read The Magicians, please do not read this review. For those who have read it but not my review, you can find it here.
In the sequel to his much beloved novel The Magicians, Grossman returns us to the world of Fillory, a magical land that, in many ways, is an homage to CS Lewis’ Narnia. The Magician King follows Quentin, our protagonist from the first novel and now a King of Fillory, and Julia, who played a relatively minor role in the first novel but is now also a Queen of Fillory. Much of the novel alternates between the events happening in Fillory (and elsewhere, as the novel progresses) and Julia’s backstory, with a satisfying reveal as the two stories reach their mutual conclusion.
In some ways this novel leaves me more conflicted than the first. It seems to suffer from “second novel syndrome” in that much of the early novel moves at a very slow pace with occasional moments of excitement when the action seems to sprint before returning to a crawl. However, when the story eventually picks up speed, it’s a compelling read with a story that feels like a satisfying mix of fairy tale and magical realism.
In terms of our protagonists, Grossman accomplishes something I thought impossible: he makes Quentin genuinely likable. Unfortunately, it’s by way of introducing someone even less likable in the from of Julia. Much like Quentin in the first novel, we feel bad for Julia, whose life-path was not nearly as smooth as Quentin’s. However, also like Quentin, she uses this fact as justification for often being surly. If you make it though the book, however, Julia’s arc has a payoff. I’m not sure if I’d consider it a satisfying one, but it’s somehow fitting. Meanwhile Quentin’s arc continues on the continual path where every good thing is a portent of ever worse things to come.
The writing, as usual, is gorgeous. This is where Grossman really shines. The novel is written with the eloquence of many pieces of “literary” fiction that I’ve read. This strong command of language is a must for this novel, as it regularly paints pictures of scenes that a lesser writer couldn’t adequately describe. Additionally, simply by virtue of the strength of his writing, Grossman made me connect emotionally to both a ship and a talking sloth. That is, among the greatest complements I could give any author.
By way of a concluding opinion, I will say that I enjoyed the book, once I finished it. It was one of those books where patience and perseverance pay off in a way that seems uncertain during some of the marshy middle-sections. I’ve since begun the final book in the trilogy (fair warning, this book ends in a way that makes you need to begin the third novel). If you enjoyed The Magicians, give it a read, but be prepared for it to be a slightly slower read than its predecessor.