In “The Magician King,” Grossman has set himself the task of building a sequel that exploits much of the same source material while finding new ways to surprise and delight the reader. Again, he succeeds -- and surpasses the earlier effort.
Here Be Spoilers: In Grossman’s first volume, Quentin Coldwater, a tormented teenage genius from Brooklyn, is recruited by Brakebills, an upstate New York college for aspiring wizards. Imagine Hogwarts with liquor and sex; that’s what Grossman did.
After graduating, Quentin and his classmates stumble into Fillory, a magical otherworld they know of from a beloved series of children’s novels. Grossman chronicles the disenchanting passage into adulthood by highlighting the differences between the sweet, Narnia-like Fillory Quentin grew up reading about and the bleak, violent “real” Fillory he finds after college.
“The Magician King” finds Quentin sitting on one of the four thrones of a redeemed Fillory and itching for adventure in a magical world of tedious abundance.
“The others had all but given up on trying to make themselves useful, but Quentin couldn’t quite let it go. Maybe that was what had been nagging at him, as he stood on the edge of that meadow in the woods. There must be something real somewhere out there, but he could never quite seem to get his hands on it.”
He embarks on a quest whose real purpose only becomes clear after the search is well under way. Quentin sets sail with a crew that includes a grumpy cartographer and a thoughtful talking sloth on a Dawn Treader-like vessel across the eastern sea of Fillory, only to stumble back into the mundane world of his childhood. He finds himself on the sidewalk outside his parents’ house like a prisoner waking up in his cell from a dream of freedom.
In alternating chapters, Grossman jumps back in time to tell the story of Julia, Quentin’s childhood friend. While Quentin was away at Brakebills, she was fighting obsessively to obtain the magical education she lost when she flunked the Brakebills entrance exam.
Julia’s storyline is a welcome addition. Quentin, for all his brooding annoyance with the real world, usually gets what he wants and excels at what he tries. Julia’s failure, and her bitter refusal to accept it, gives “The Magician King” a texture, pace and tension the first book, with its linear narrative, lacked.
Enter Dr. Seuss
Grossman’s weakness is his overuse of pop-culture references. It’s one thing to furnish your world with recognizable bits of reality; it’s another to cite “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss, Disney’s “Fantasia” and the Kansas album “Point of Know Return” in fewer than 20 pages. That’s not writing, that’s a Dennis Miller routine.
The author’s magpie literary sourcing is more deft. In the sequel, he moves beyond “Harry Potter” and the Narnia books into Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Alasdair Gray’s “Lanark” and Arthurian romance, with a little bit of Homer on the side.
Sometimes he acknowledges his borrowings, sometimes he doesn’t. But he always transforms them in a crucible of bitter, often shockingly violent reality that renders them newly distinctive and makes me eager for a third installment.
(Andrew Dunn is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on the review: Andrew Dunn in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org
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