magician king“Quentin rode a gray horse with white socks named Dauntless.”

The inescapable trouble with book series is that, if you leave too long between each one, details slip from your mind and the story unravels, so that by the time you get to the next one, you’re tromping a half-remembered country with a dodgy outdated map. Being someone who dislikes reading the same author twice in immediate succession, this presents a problem for me. I solved it with A Series of Unfortunate Events by reading one a month, and Patrick Ness solved it for me with Chaos Walking by making the books so damn good. However, it had been about sixteen months since I last visited Grossman’s series about magicians. In fact, the original novel forms the very first review I did on this site. Diving back in was never going to be easy.

I liked the original very much, so I had high hopes for the sequel although, as I will explain below, much of it was swathed in mystery once more.

NOTE: Below there will be spoilers for those who haven’t yet read The Magicians. Read on at your own risk.

Quentin Coldwater used to be a normal teenager, unusual only for his intellect, but all of that now seems long ago. Instead of getting into one of the colleges he was expecting, he took the entrance test to a hidden college called Brakebills – a college where magic was real and very much on the curriculum. Through this twist of fate, he made new friends, lost old ones, and discovered that the land of Fillory, an up-until-then fictional world that featured heavily in his favourite childhood books was real and accessible.

This story picks up two years later, when Quentin is now the King of Fillory, along with two other Brakebills students, Eliot and Janet, and his friend Julia, who, while not attending magical college, somehow learnt magic anyway and is more than capable of holding her own with the others. Quentin has had enough of just sitting around and being kingly, feeling desperately the need to go on a quest. When it turns out that one of the islands on the very edge of Fillory’s borders haven’t been paying their taxes, Quentin volunteers to pay them a visit, along with fellow monarch Julia, a young mapmaker, the most talanted swordsman in the country, and a talking sloth.

The island turns out to be tropical, but otherwise fairly boring, although he learns about an island even further out, After Island, which is at the centre of a fairy tale involving golden keys and the very edge of the world. Setting out a course for this island, they eventually find it. Without quite knowing how, using the key in an invisibile door, Quentin and Julia suddenly find themselves back in the real world, on Earth, and they’re neither too happy about it. Desperate to find a way back, Julia uses her underground contacts to seek out a portal home. Instead, they find their old friend Josh and dragon expert Poppy, and after a lot of searching, both in the world and in themselves, they find a way back, only to find that this is anything but the end: their problems are only just beginning.

Interspersed with this narrative is the story of how Julia came to use magic, and the struggles she faced, filling in the gaps of what happened while Quentin was studying at Brakebills. As it turns out, what happened then and what’s happening now might be more closely related than any of them realise.

I’ll confess that it took me longer than it possibly should have to get into this one, but I put that mostly down to the fact I’d forgotten a lot about the original. Thankfully, the first few chapters are fairly heavy on recapping, filling in gaps about previous events and giving explanations as to why certain characters are supposed to be important. Although I’m not in any way a Narnia fan, it’s even clearer here than before that Fillory is just Grossman’s take on the subject, inventing as he does a world where magic is not only possible, but runs through the entire place. As one of the characters says, there is magic on Earth, but Fillory is magic.

It’s also full of references to pop culture, and in particular Harry Potter. Last time, Grossman mentioned Hermione and Quidditch, and this time Hagrid gets a mention. It’s logical – these characters probably did read Harry Potter, and as magical references go, most people are going to get these ones. This is sort of a Harry Potter for adults – one in which magic is real, but everyone is still very concerned with sex and alcohol.

The characters are fairly well constructed, although I think I’d find any of them a bit boring to go for dinner with. Julia is interesting, and her backstory is explored in wonderful, painful detail, making you feel sorry for all she has had to go through. There are heavy moments of exposition, but it never feels particularly laboured. Some scenes don’t get nearly enough time to play with. For example, minor antagonist of the first book, Penny, shows up in the Neitherlands (the space in between universes) to throw some backstory at Quentin and Poppy, but he’s gone again fairly quickly with little fanfare. Also, there is a wonderful scene with a dragon, but it could really have done with a little more time.

All told, it definitely reads like the middle novel in a trilogy, but not one that makes me feel like the third book will be a chore. It’s hilarious, and the magic works so seamlessly. People’s reaction to magic and Fillory is exactly what you’d expect from reality. Most people wouldn’t just accept it, there’s got to be a few double takes and moments of denial. It ends in a manner that is frustrating, but then again so perfect, and I for one am now going to be desperately looking forward to the series conclusion.