It’s rare that a sequel is better than the first book in the series, but I have to say that Lev Grossman’s The Magician King is better than The Magicians. The story seems to have settled into its setting. We know who the characters are, so we don’t have to waste time going over the same ground. Instead, the plot marches solidly on towards an unpredictable but fantastic conclusion. If this book means that Grossman is just going to get better and better with these books, I don’t know if I can handle another book without completely geeking out and forcing my friends and family to read them all.
We meet our heroes and heroines–the kings and queens of Fillory and former students of Brakebills in New York–killing time. Their kingdom pretty much runs itself, and the lack of anything worthwhile is starting to wear on Quentin in particular. He decides to get away from the capitol on an errand, volunteering one of his co-rulers to go with. That errand, a trip to an outlying part of the kingdom, turns out to be the start of a quest–though Quentin doesn’t realize it. Grossman puts a lot of things into motion in this book. I didn’t even realize that some of the unresolved questions from the first book–such as where one of the characters learned her magic, what the Neitherlands really are, etc.–come back to play unexpectedly. When you’ve read as much as I have, you learn to love books that can surprise you.
The quest takes Queutin beyond the borders of his kingdom and back to Earth. After his desperate attempts to return to Fillory finally succeed, we all find ourselves in the end stages of the quest. The pace changes from leisurely to so tense that I ended up reading late into the night to finish it off and see how it all turned out. I hesitate to say anymore, because everything ends up so neatly and beautifully. But I will say that it ends with a segue into a possible new chapter for the series. Grossman opened a new door there, literally, that I really want to go through.
By the end, I realized that this book was about three different things. First, it is a quest. Quentin and his companions have to save their adopted nation and magic. More importantly, this book is about what it really means to be a hero, to make sacrifices. Quentin sacrifices more than he thought he was capable–more than I thought he was capable of, considering what a whiner he’s been in the past. But above all, I think this book is about taking responsibility and paying the price for your mistakes. It’s almost like there’s a karmic balance to be met. Instead of characters being able to carry on trying to redeem themselves, they have to make sacrifices to make up for them. It’s an interesting point to ponder. The sacrifices these characters make are far from easy ones. Crowns are lost. Doors are permanently barred. But once they’ve paid their karmic price, it’s like the slate is wiped clean. On top of being a wonderfully imaginative fantasy and being terrifically written, it’s also a great philosophical read.