I once wrote a column about imaginary places that would be interesting choices for summer vacations: Neverland, Treasure Island, Oz, Middle-Earth, Avalon, Wonderland, Narnia. The latter was my favorite because of the thrill of pushing aside stuffy coats in the wardrobe to walk into a snowy world infused with magic. Narnia remains high on my list, but right now I’d like my passport stamped for Fillory. Oh, and while I’m there, I want to be a reigning monarch and ride a horse named Dauntless.
That’s what Quentin Coldwater is doing at the beginning of Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, the sequel to The Magicians, my favorite fantasy of recent years. In that first novel, Brooklyn teen Quentin Coldwater matriculated at Brakebills, a secret, Ivy League-like college of magical pedagogy, where he learned real magic while fooling around with a select group of friends. All had grown up on a series of children’s novels about a magical land called Fillory — a sort of mash-up of Narnia, Middle-Earth and classic fairy-tale realms — and, after graduation, they discovered it was a real place. Adventures ensued, but so did tragedy, and Quentin returned to New York.
The Magician King begins two years later in Fillory. Quentin, two more Brakebills grads, and his high school friend Julia, who had to acquire her own magical powers after being rejected by Brakebills, have assumed the four thrones of Castle Whitespire and discovered that ruling over Fillory is a bit, uh, boring. But then Quentin and Julia sail to the Outer Island, hear the story of the Golden Keys and embark on a perilous quest that eventually finds them far from Fillory and struggling to return.
Interspersed is the backstory of Julia gaining her fierce magical powers, which are stranger, and perhaps stronger, than that of Brakebills. This becomes apparent when ancient forces threaten the portal Neitherlands, and the fate of Fillory hangs in the balance.
Dreams do come true, but not without great cost. Hearts are broken, hopes quashed, sacrifices demanded. Happily- ever-after is for fairy tales, and despite its fantastical flourishes, The Magician King is not a fairy tale. It’s an involving literary novel about what comes next after you’ve made the third wish and gotten what you thought you wanted. It’s sometimes thrillingly dark and dangerous but also frequently funny, filled with pop culture references and asides. Narnia is invoked, as are Harry Potter and Monty Python. Quentin and company refer to a diplomatic monarch as Fillory Clinton.
Early in the book, a character notes the things one likes about magicians; they are “disgustingly bright and rather sad and slightly askew.” Real. Like magic. Like Fillory.
Open Book: I bought the e-book version of The Magician King by Lev Grossman (Viking) as soon as it went on sale last week, downloading it in the middle of the night. Then I decided to reread The Magicians so I could spend as long as possible in Fillory. Now I am going through a box of old buttons. Fellow readers will understand.