Lev Grossman's 2009 novel The Magicians was a remarkable fantasy novel, a subversive young-wizard novel that showed us bright magical prodigies who had all the quirks and flaws of real-world prodigies. It combined sarcastic, arch attitudinizing with the wish-fulfillment, fairylands, and well, magic of fantasy novels into a kind of anti-Harry-Potter story that gutted the comfortable worlds of high fantasy without mercy.
The Magician King is Grossman's sequel to The Magicians, and while it is every bit as delightful and smart as the first one, it's a very different kind of book. It opens with Quentin and three of his magician friends from Magicians ruling over Fillory, a magical kingdom that they quest for in the first novel. Ruling over an idyllic, magic land is pretty dull, as it turns out — mostly pomp and ceremony, with no chance for importing Enlightenment reforms despite Quentin's best hopes. Quentin yearns for a quest — having achieved his lifelong goal, he finds it wanting, and he can't decide if the quest that won Fillory was even his, or whether he was just a minor character in someone else's story.
Quentin gets his chance — a contrived quest to the furthest island on the maps, which owes back taxes. Not that Fillory actually uses gold, but they do try to stockpile it for appearance's sake. From this quest follows a series of adventures and misadventures that are somewhere between Juster's Phantom Tollbooth and Narnia, as told by Philip Roth. And this isn't just Quentin's tale — he is accompanied by his co-queen Julia, his childhood crush, who wasn't accepted into magic school and went mad as a consequence. Now, broken and bitter, Julia's story puts the magic of The Magicians into a larger context, showing us that the orderly, neat magic of Brakebills College and its gentlemanly wizards are just one edge of a much larger, weirder tapestry that spirals off to the origin of the universe and the great powers that lurk there.
Flipping back and forth between Quentin and Julia's story, The Magician King is at once an existential exercise that angrily shakes escapism by its shoulders and demands that life have a purpose, and a story about extraordinary deeds, heroism, magic and love — all the stuff that makes escapism go. Grossman isn't condemning escapism, but he's certainly holding it to account and asking it for more. It's a fantastic trick that makes this into a book that entertains and disturbs at the same time.