The Magicians and The Magician King: Review

Reviewed in this essay:

The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Viking Press, 2009.

The Magician King by Lev Grossman. Viking Press, 2011.

Lev Grossman’s books The Magicians and The Magician King are fantasy as it ought to be: dark, funny, and brilliantly realized. The books cannot avoid comparisons to Harry Potter — geeky boy, magical school, an improbable talent at a magical sport — and so Grossman adopts an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude that is both successful and charming. The books are peppered with references to Quidditch, Middle Earth, and so on; in fact, the major story arc revolves around Quentin’s obsession with the fantasy books of his childhood, and the realities of entering that world.

This is magic set in the real world, despite the fact that only part of the action occurs on Earth. Grossman’s characters are flawed and deeply human; he is exploring the question ignored by most other fantasy writers: what actually happens when people, with all their caprices and selfishness, are granted these otherworldly powers? The answer is initially a lot of sex and substance abuse, but pretty soon this proves not to be enough, and in The Magician King, Quentin is determined to make something of his title and prove himself a hero. The consequences are far more than he could have predicted, and Grossman does not shy away from imposing those consequences.

The Magician King also introduces the new voice of Julia, only a minor character in The Magicians, and her dark fury electrifies the book. The novel shifts perspective to illuminate a very different path from the one Quentin took — she learned magic on the streets, not within the safety of Brakebills, and the consequences are both horrific and redemptive. The book uses magic as a way to look unflinchingly at power: who has it, and what it takes to get it.

Read the TRB’s coverage of Lev Grossman’s appearance at the International Festival of Authors on October 25 (with Erin Morgenstern and Simon Toyne) here.

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