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Lev Grossman
The Magician King
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Viking / Penguin Putnam
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-670-02231-1
Publication Date: 08-09-2011
400 Pages ;$26.95
Date Reviewed: 09-17-2011

Index:  Fantasy  General Fiction  Science Fiction

It's good to be king — and that's a problem most fantasy writers simply avoid. Not Lev Grossman, who follows up 'The Magicians' with 'The Magician King,' a superb and subversive sequel that manages the utterly fantastic feat of being in two places at once.

'The Magician King' takes its characters and setting quite seriously, as snarky twenty-something slackers find themselves adrift in a utopian fantasy kingdom powered by magic. A quest is called for, and lives will be changed, perhaps lost. Grossman offers all the high-points of high fantasy nicely ticked-off and excellently executed.

But 'The Magician King' is, at the same time, in the same novel, a send-up of exactly the sort of novel it both pretends to be and actually succeeds at being. The superb, logical plotting in a fantasy setting plays off the droll prose. 'The Magician King' is hilarious and moving — not an easy feat to pull off.

Grossman's novel picks up where most fantasy novels run a slow fade. Quentin, Julia, Janet and Eliot are tetrarchs ruling the magical kingdom of Fillory. There's a problem, though, that becomes rapidly apparent. Happiness is dull. Stability is stultifying. Bored, Quentin looks for something, anything to do, and sets off on an innocuous quest to collect some back taxes. In the tradition of fantasy trilogies, most of which he's read, he gathers a formidable force, and heads out on the open sea. It should be a piece of cake. Alas, it proves to be a bit more complicated than he imagined.

It's easy enough to sail on Grossman's entertaining plot, which twins the story of Quentin's quest with the back-story of Julia's indoctrination into magic. While the rest of the quartet was whirling and twirling in the posh environs of Brakebills in 'The Magicians,' Julia was getting a streetwise education in back alleys and rented crash-pads. Her story lets more magic seep into our world, while in the portions set in Fillory, the slacker-kings get an education in Fantasy Quest, 101. Even low adventure offers the possibility of catastrophic failure, with death as a side-order. And success may not be as entertaining for those on the receiving end as it is for those who read about it.

But crackling right up against Grossman's plot is his prose, and here's where the reading gets really fun. 'The Magician King' is a screamingly funny satire. Every page is packed with sentences like, "Janet was in charge of relations with foreign powers — Quentin called her Fillory Clinton." Even as Grossman makes good on his fantastic premise by taking it with complete seriousness and treating a quest right — finally — he is sending it up with merciless language that is perfectly suited to his characters' perceptions — and ours. 'The Magician King' may be the smartest comedic novel you'll read this year.

Because it took the tropes and treasures of heroic second world fantasy seriously, 'The Magicians' was an outstanding novel, and not just for genre readers. Realistic characters infiltrated a magical world, bringing some back home with them. In 'The Magician King,' those same characters bring a good dose of reality to a magical utopia. Though these novels clearly comprise a series best read in order, each installment has a much more internally complete feeling than the usual one-long-story-divvied-up series. Even when it is being utterly enchanting, 'The Magician King' is savaging satirizing enchantment. In 'The Magician King,' Lev Grossman manages to pull off precisely the sort of magic he's so adept at putting down.

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