Quentin and his friends have settled into their roles as the kings and queens of Fillory, into lives of indolent purposelessness — it turns out Fillory pretty much runs itself — and the gaping hole of grief left behind by Alice. Quentin, as usual, hunts for ways to fill it, and when you live in a magical land, what better way than a quest? This is a slightly better Quentin than we’re used to though, not yet stripped bare of his entitlement and bad emotional habits, but softened into a more empathetic figure by the reality of loss.
The quest pays its share of homages to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but this time around the story is less concerned with deconstructing our childhood fantasies than it is with gradually robbing Quentin of all of the crutches he’s used to avoid dealing with his depression and grief, and taking responsibility for his actions. Woven between the modern-day Fillory chapters are flashbacks to how Julia fared after her rejection from Brakebills, and her magical education is a blistering contrast to Quentin’s tale of privilege. She fought tooth and nail for every scrap of power and knowledge, and his role in setting her on the path that took so much from her is one of the responsibilities Quentin finally has to acknowledge.
The Magician King is a more fantastical book than the first, and unlike The Magicians we aren’t viewing these fantastical elements solely through the perspective of a clinically depressed protagonist who can’t take any wonder from them, so at times it feels more upbeat than its predecessor. It still doesn’t paint a patina of romance over the fantasy, though. Quests don’t guide you on your way to your happily ever after; quests mean that people die, and it’s neither meaningful nor glorious, it’s just death, and at the end your reward is perhaps to put right what you broke in the first place, to do the right thing even if it takes everything.
I felt the relative lack of character growth in The Magicians was a pretty realistic and solid portrayal of how depressed people function, or don’t as the case may be, but I can understand why it was so frustrating for a lot of readers. The Magician King delivers the payoff. There’s little of the old Quentin left by the time we say goodbye on an almost literal cliffhanger. The premise of the first book is neatly summed up in one of his hard-won realisations:
Everything was chance and nothing was perfect and magic didn’t make you happy, and Quentin had learned to live with it, which it turned out that most people he knew were already doing anyway, and it was time he caught up with them.
Julia still walks the more interesting path of the two, though. It’s funny how the character whose immediate situation after the Brakebills rejection is so deeply fucked up is also, in some ways, the character who has it the most together. She understands that Quentin’s unrequited love for her and any bitterness it engenders is his problem, not hers. She refuses to be gaslit by Brakebills. She understands her own value and potential in the face of crushing circumstances. Her initial magical growth is really hard to watch because in some respects, I wanted to cheer her on for having the strength to repeatedly reject her perceived reality rather than allow a privileged institution’s attempt to assert itself as the sole authority over her future, but it’s more like watching a junkie tear their life apart in search of their next fix than some proud uprising against the Man. She’s a faster learner than Quentin when it comes to understanding that there’s a point where you have to look at your life, say it’s enough, and supply your own happiness, but they both bring about their own tragedies in getting there.
I think for people whose issue with The Magicians was Quentin’s lack of growth and the lack of a counterpoint to his privileged viewpoint, The Magician King would be a substantial improvement. It has a stronger narrative structure, more dark humour, and a more compelling variety of characters whose struggles do a lot to put Quentin’s in perspective. It’s probably still not going to convince you to love the series if you didn’t dig the first book’s commentary on escapism, though. For readers who loved The Magicians as much as I did, The Magician King is a worthy successor that journeys out of the darkness and into the light.