Lev Grossman’s 2009 bestseller The Magicians was a novel of late adolescence and very young adulthood. It was about a bunch of self-centered bastards who couldn’t see past their own problems to notice that all their friends were deeply damaged people, even if they were highly trained magicians who made multiple worlds their oyster. Life, they thought, was so pointless. They might as well casually destroy each other, while mostly using their magical powers for stupid shit.
The sequel, The Magician King, is a late-20s/early-30s kind of novel. Quentin Coldwater, the wizard who traveled to a mythical land to be its king in the first book, has gotten past most of his misery and settled into bored complacency, wondering whether hanging out in a castle and getting drunk is really all there is to rulership. Isn’t he meant for great things? Shouldn’t he be carrying out some giant quest? In the book’s opening chapter, the quest he’s already on unravels disappointingly, so he decides to embark to the farthest edge of the land he rules, a speck of an island in the middle of the sea, and he winds up on an even stranger journey.
The Magicians was terrific, but loose, with a plot that moved from incident to incident with only the barest connecting material. The Magician King, which is better in almost every way, feels as if it might be even looser in the early going, with plenty of opportunities to worry whether Grossman can pull his narrative together. But once he reaches his devastating climax, neatly knitting together story threads readers won’t have even realized were major plot points, the novel reaches a level of poignancy the first could only hope to attain.
It also helps that Grossman steps outside his protagonist’s head at times, turning Magicians minor character Julia into a co-lead. A self-trained witch, Julia has good reason to be as pissed as Quentin was in book one, and Magician King delicately teases out the properly horrifying roots of her sorrows. Grossman also introduces a new major character with little to no angst, someone who genuinely seems to enjoy being a great magician, just to contrast her with the first book’s brooding bunch.
Magician King is clearly the middle book in a trilogy, but it’s that rare creature that bridges the gap between tales and still stands on its own. And just as the first book showed that growing up is hard no matter how much power you have, it shows that becoming an adult involves far more than just reaching the right age.