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Grossman's "The Magician King" Delights

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July 27, 2011
Lev Grossman's latest book, "The Magician King," is a pleasing blend of magical adventure and human drama. Grossman presents an interesting variation on the increasingly popular fantasy genre.

In his novel, the enchanted world of magic does not supersede the more mundane challenges of human life. Instead the two are blended in a story that entertains on many levels.

Grossman keeps readers delightfully reminded of previous well-known adventure and fantasy stories. He includes allusions to "The Chronicles of Narnia," "Harry Potter" and the legend of King Arthur. Placing "The Magician King" in the context of these popular books is part of the fun.

The novel continues the story begun in Grossman's previous book, "The Magicians (2009)." In that novel, Quentin Coldwater is bound for a college entrance examination when he gets sidetracked and winds up at a school where he is trained to be a magician. Because Quentin and his friends have grown up reading and rereading a beloved series of fantasy books about the magical world of Fillory, they are thrilled when they later discover that Fillory actually exists.

These young adventurers soon find that their magic skills do not protect them from the common realities faced by humans. They experience an extended period of post-college listlessness as they cast about for something to do. They have confusing relationships, act impulsively and suffer the consequences. They experience keen disappointment when their cherished land of Fillory proves to be a dangerous place.

At the start of "The Magician King," the land of Fillory is peaceful and is ruled by Quentin, Eliot, Janet and Julia. They live in luxury, but Quentin is becoming increasingly restless and dissatisfied with this life of ease. He notes changes in his physique with regret: "One minute you're Prince Valiant, the next you're Henry VIII."

A crisis soon presents itself, and Quentin and Julia volunteer to make a perilous journey to a remote island. While they are prepared to face hardship and danger, Quentin and Julia are truly frightened when their adventure leads them to the home of Quentin's parents in the decidedly nonmagical Chesterton, Mass.

Just as Grossman references other fantasy adventures, his characters are also mindful of the conventions of adventure stories. When Quentin chooses a ship for the voyage, he is drawn to a broken down but formerly grand ship that requires weeks of work before it is seaworthy. He remarks that if he were in one of the Fillory novels he loved, this would be the type of ship he would sail.

Quentin also judges his own progress against the stories he knows so well. When Quentin easily finds the golden key he is searching for, he is unsettled. "It was too soon. They shouldn't have found it this quick, nor should they obtain it without a fight."

Throughout the novel, Grossman explores the themes of disappointment and perspective. His characters are repeatedly trying to leave or trying to return. When he was growing up Quentin wished he could escape his life and live in Fillory. When he is ruler of Fillory, that life has lost some charm. However, when he is transported back to suburbia, he is desperate to return.

Quentin is often unable to recognize romance and beauty in his own life. Adventure and magic seems always to be just out of reach. When Quentin visits England for the first time, he begins to wonder if he has underestimated this world. "Even without the magic they had the grass and that blessed country solitude and the sun flickering past between the branches." He considers the possibility that he could be happy without Fillory.

Grossman strikes a perfect balance of allegory and adventure. This engaging novel is a fast-paced tale filled with mystery and magic. It is also a thoughtful exploration of how easy it is to lose sight of the magic and romance in every life.

Lev Grossman will discuss and sign "The Magician King" Wednesday, Aug. 17, 7 p.m., at the Schlafly branch of St. Louis Public Library, 225 N. Euclid Ave. Call 994-3300 for more information.

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