The Magician King
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Quentin Coldwater should be blissfully happy. He escaped a miserable Brooklyn childhood for Brakebills, a secret and exclusive college for magic in upstate New York. When he graduated he discovered that Fillory, the magical utopia described in a series of children’s fantasy novels he never quite outgrew, was real.
Fillory was a far more dangerous place than Quentin could have imagined, and he faced unspeakable tragedies there. But now Quentin and his friends have become the kings and queens of Fillory and under their reign, Fillory is a peaceful kingdom. But Quentin is restless. He hasn’t escaped the scars of his past, and the peace and luxury of his life in Fillory will prove more fragile than anyone expects.
After a royal morning hunt takes a sinister turn, Quentin’s doubts get the better of him. With Julia, a queen of Fillory and Quentin’s high school friend, in tow, he charters a magical sailing ship and heads off to the farthest reaches of Fillory. He is in search of adventurethe thrill and sense of purpose only a heroic quest can bestow. Instead his journey takes them to the last place Quentin wants to be: his parents’ house in Chesterton, Massachusetts.
Quentin is a magician and a king, but even he can’t rescue them from suburban America. Only the dark, twisted sorcery Julia learned in the seedy back alleys of the Brooklyn underground magic scene can put them on the road back to Fillory. But when Julia takes center stage, so too does her story, and with it the secret of the terrible price she paid for her power. As Quentin and Julia follow a trail of clues from Brakebills to Venice to the home of the reallife children who appeared in the Fillory novels, they gradually discover a more sinister, more powerful threat than any they’ve faced. And they must fight death and despair in a world that is very far from the bright, simply fantasy novels they read as children.
In The Magicians, Lev Grossman shattered the limits of conventional fantasy writing by imagining magic as practiced in the real world by fallible and capricious people, without the clear and absolutes of good and evil most fantasy heroes steer by. The Magician King sets these young magicians on an epic quest deep into the dark, glittering heart of magic to reveal the unexpected paradox behind being a hero. It also introduces a powerful new voice, that of Julia, whose angry genius is thrilling and terrifying. The juxtaposition of her rage and Quentin’s yearning creates a novel of resonant psychological complexity and reckoning. Brilliant, inventive, and gutwrenchingly authentic, The Magician King once again proves that Grossman is the modern heir to C. S. Lewis and the cutting edge of literary fantasy.
Lev Grossman is a senior writer and book critic for Time magazine. He is a graduate of Harvard and Yale, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two daughters. In 2011 Grossman won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best New Writer from the World Science Fiction Society.
Q. The Magician King is the riveting sequel to the bestselling The Magicians. When did you realize Quentin’s story would extend beyond just one novel?
Later than you’d think. In fact, not till after The Magicians was published. When I was working on The Magicians, the idea that anybody would publish it this dark, filthy, irreverent book about wizards was hard enough for me to hang on to. Thinking about a sequel felt like jinxing it. But it must have been somewhere in the back of my mind, because when I ended the book I did leave the door open..
Q. The Magician King takes place across worlds and time. What was it like as you moved between worldsdid it affect your writing process? What was some of your inspiration for the Voyage of the Muntjac and the Neitherlands?
For me, travel between worlds has always been the heart of fantasy. I remember picking up The Hobbit after reading the Narnia books and thinking, wait the hobbits are stuck in Middle Earth? There’s nowhere else? I fell in love early with the idea that the world we know is not the only world. My favorite setting in all of Lewis’s work was the Wood Between the Worlds in The Magician’s Nephew, which was the inspiration for The Neitherlands. It seemed OK to borrow from Lewis, since according to legend, anyway, he was inspired by William Morris’s novel The Wood Beyond the World.
The voyage of the Muntjac was, fairly evidently, inspired by The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I just loved the way Lewis pushed his characters out over the edge of the world, where anything could happen. And it did.
Q. The Magician King is as much Julia’s novel as it is Quentin’s. What was it like writing from her perspective? Did it change your perception of any other characters?
It certainly changed my perspective on Quentin. When Julia describes Quentin, it’s the first time in the Magicians series that we see him from the outside, the way others see him. I found it incredibly liberating and exciting to write from Julia’s point of view. I’m prouder of her story than I am of anything else I’ve ever written. It made me aware, more than anything else, how lucky the other characters are, the ones who went to Brakebills. They really are the magical equivalent of the 1%.
Have your ideas about fantasy and magic evolved as you wrote The Magician King? How did you go about specifying the “rules” of magic in the novel? Did you find yourself breaking those rules when you were writing about Julia?
In The Magicians magic was the property of the very few, the elect, and nobody else could do it much as it is in Harry Potter, the world is divided into magicians and nonmagicians. In The Magician King for the first time we see other people doing magic random people, people off the street, people who never passed a test or went to Brakebills. It’s a very subversive moment. Boundaries get blurred that had seemed clear. But the underlying rules remain the same. The rules of magic are like physical laws: they apply to everybody, and they don’t make exceptions.
Q. Despite its fantasy elements, this novel is couched in a very adult reality. What challenges did you face in balancing those two elements? What experience do you want your readers to walk away with?
The key to the Magicians books is that they take place in our world first, an adult world, with everything in it that we know from real life, the good and the bad. I’ve read too many fantasy novels, even ones set in the present, where there are no cell phones, no video games, no Interent, where nobody swears or goes to the bathroom or has sex. I wanted to find out what magic would feel like and what it would mean in the real world, and I wanted it to feel as real as everything else in it. That’s the “what if” I want readers to walk away with: what if magic really did exist. What then.
Q. Venice is a city with a rich and unusual history. Was there anything in particular that drew you to Josh’s palazzo and the story of the Dragon of the Grand Canal?
I’ve spent some time in Venice. I love it there. I wanted to send Quentin to Venice because he’s so dismissive of our world he’s very quick to believe that there’s nothing for him here, nothing grand or interesting or strange or beautiful. Venice is proof otherwise.
Q. Throughout the book, you make references to fantasy stories and other pop culture entities. What role does pop culture have in your writing? Do you draw inspiration from contemporary sources outside the traditional fantasy literature?
Pop culture is tricky stuff to handle, for a novelist. It changes so quickly that unless you’re writing a historical novel, a period novel, pop culture causes a novel to feel very dated very quickly. And too many pop culture references can start to feel a bit cute and selfreferential, two things I never want to be. But one of the deals I made with myself when I wrote these books, and with the reader, is that everything that exists in our world must exist in the books. Quentin and his friends have read Harry Potter, and seen the Lord of the Rings movies. Josh definitely watches The Venture Brothers. It’s a delicate balance.
And yes, I am influenced by a lot of contemporary sources. The Bourne movies, especially the first one, has been a huge influence. So was The Sopranos. And I read a lot of contemporary literary fiction, and I steal from it shamelessly.
Q. What can you tell us about the third book in the trilogy? What’s in store for Quentin Coldwater?
I can tell you how the third book begins: back at Brakebills. I felt like we’d been away for too long, and hanging out at a school for magic is just too fun not to do it one more time. Beyond that, I don’t want to be too specific. We’ll spend more time with Janet, who got short shrift in The Magician King. We’ll find out what Quentin’s discipline is. We’ll wrap up all the outstanding threads from the first two books, or all the ones that can be wrapped up. And Quentin will be happier than he has been lately. He won’t be so dour all the time. He’ll catch a break or two. He’ll grow up a lot more.
And there will be a humongous magical battle, just to keep things interesting.
- Who is Quentin Coldwater? What are your first impressions of him? How would you describe his life as one of the kings of Fillory? How does he see his affairs at the beginning of the book?
- How would you describe Julia when you first read about her? How does she differ from her comrades? How does that difference inform her actions throughout the book?
- During the initial leg of his journey, Quentin reads The Seven Golden Keys. What significance does this story have for Quentin? How does this story of a man searching for his daughter relate to the rest of the novel?
- When Quentin and Julia are accidentally transported to Earth, describe their reaction to returning. What does being back on Earth mean to each of them? What drives each of them to return to Fillory?
- How does the Neitherlands connect the worlds in this book? Why do you think the Neitherlands are affected by the events of the novel?
- What does Quentin learn from the Dragon of the Grand Canal? What does the dragon mean? How does this news complicate not only Quentin’s plan to return to Fillory, but the purpose of his quest?
- Who is Poppy? How do her views challenge the other magicians in this journey? When she claims that Quentin wants to return to Fillory “because it’s easier,” what does she mean by that? Do you agree?
- Why are the travelers successful in returning to Fillory after spending a night playing games with a little boy called Thomas? Why is this significant? What relationship do you see between childhood and the idea of magic?
- What is your understanding of magic as it is portrayed in this novel? How would you describe the culture of magicians? How does Julia’s magic differ from Quentin’s? What relationship does magic have with ideas like God and religion?
- Following the battle to retrieve the next to last key, Quentin finds that fate has dealt a blow to Benedict. What effect does this event have on Quentin? How does what happened to Benedict change the tone of the adventure?
- Toward the end of the novel, it is revealed that Julia endured a devastating event. How would you describe what happened to her? What effect did it have on her? What is your opinion of what Julia ultimately becomes?
- What sacrifice does Quentin make at the end of the book? What’s your take on this? How does this affect his character? What do you think lies in store for Quentin?