Lev Grossman The Magician King:
A Novel William Heinemann 2011
A sequel to a successful novel is always a difficult task for a writer. A major dilemma is whether to stick to a successful formula or whether to plough new furrows in an attempt to avoid a sense of déjà-vu; either way risks alienating stern literary critics on the one hand or diehard fans on the other. One strategy is to combine both approaches, and Grossman’s second offering in a trilogy does exactly that: we’re dished up a lot of the same but also a fair seasoning of new elements which fortunately manage to refresh the taste buds.
The Magicians focused its gaze on Quentin Coldwater as he entered Brakebills College, a centre for learning the discipline of magic. We saw how, through an obsession with a fantasy series written by one Christopher Plover, Quentin and a group of fellow Brakebills graduates eventually managed to visit the land of Fillory. However, something is rotten in the state of Fillory, and in combating the Beast (in whom Quentin had inadvertently awoken an unwelcome awareness of Brakebills) great sacrifices have to be made — not only severe injury but also a fate as bad as death. The first novel ends with Quentin, his Brakebills contemporaries Eliot and Janet, plus the frankly rather strange Julia, finding a way back to Fillory, life on Earth having proved rather, well, mundane.
The Magician King opens with the quartet installed as kings and queens of Fillory, on its east coast, literally living the high life at Whitespire Castle. With everything at their beck and call the four monarchs soon find a lack of purpose leads to a sense of ennui, a listlessness the medievals called accidie. What they need is a quest and, as is the way of things, the quest soon finds them. Things are still not quite right in Fillory and Quentin hopes that, with the help of magical creatures, the search for seven golden keys will prove the antidote to all their problems.
However, just as Quentin was the unfortunate cause of disasters in the first book, the true key to what is awry in the second book is down to a magical ritual in which Julia has taken part. Where we experienced events in The Magicians through Quentin’s eyes, now our attention switches between him and former friend Julia. Rejected by Brakebills, she has learnt her magic by unorthodox routes, and her backstory is interlaced with Quentin’s quest. In a clear nod to C S Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Quentin’s journey east towards the rising sun leads him through uncharted waters, through which he enlists the help of young cartographer Benedict and a bodyguard swordsman with the improbable name of Bingle. The end of The Magician King finds Quentin, after numerous contrasting episodes, in a position that he frankly didn’t expect.
That subtle combination of new and old that I mentioned earlier is very much in evidence here. Our interest is not confined to Quentin, a likeable though not flawless protagonist, but takes in Julia, a fascinating if increasingly disturbed individual. Grossman also convincingly mixes in motifs from myth, folklore and classic literature — we have a really very chilling trickster figure, for example, and there’s even a dea ex machina — but it never feels artificial; the narrative maintains a logical sense of progression whilst being grounded in the believable personalities of the two main protagonists. In place of the bildungsroman aspect of the previous book — Quentin’s progress from student to adept status — we have Quentin’s quest; Arthurian romances are specifically referenced (and subverted, as the Malory quote “We shall now seek that which we shall not find” used as epigraph implies) but it’s the journey, not the arrival, that holds our attention.
If people and things make up much of the stuff of stories so too are places, and we are presented with a series of scenarios that help to position us in the otherwise shifting sands of the action. Lands familiar from fairytales (castles, woods and the like) contrast with the dream-like aspect of the quest’s end; quasi-real locations (Chesterton, Massachusetts) and real places (Venice in Italy) jostle with the Neitherlands, the world between worlds that provides the interface between Earth and imaginary worlds like Fillory. The parlous state of the Neitherlands is another clear indication of magical misadventure; Grossman’s description of the various decaying buildings and piazzas are both a counterpart to Venice and to those Renaissance stage set designs by individuals such as Sebastiano Serlio, or those loci conjured up by medieval adepts practising the mnemonic technique of ars memoriae, the Art of Memory.
Neither here nor there: not just an apt description of the Neitherlands but also of the middle instalment of a trilogy. Not quite a standalone, The Magician King nevertheless has a lot going for it. That also means that the final part, The Magician’s Land, has a lot to live up to.