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The Magicians introduced us to Quentin Coldwater, a young American whose heart belongs in a Narnia-like world of juvenile fantasy novels called Fillory. When Quentin gets into an exclusive school called Brakebills (think: a college-level Hogwarts in upstate New York), he learns the dangerous art magic, then joins several of his buddies on a journey that takes them to the very real world of Fillory. And still happiness eludes him. That is all background to this book, in which Quentin and friends delve further into a world proving that magic and adventure are no substitute for a strong course of antidepressants.
The chapters of The Magician King alternate between two storylines. In the one that gives the book its title, Quentin grows restless on the throne of Fillory, which he shares with three other Brakebills alumni. Convinced that he needs a quest, or some kind of adventure, more than the easy life of a pampered royal, he sails out to the edge of the known world just to see what is there. What he finds is a portal back to the Real World, from which he and his troubled friend Julia make a narrow escape back into Fillory. But their adventure has just started. Now it seems the magic is being taken away from all the worlds, and in Fillory’s case that means the end of the world. Quentin started it all by getting the attention of the powers behind the magic; now it is his quest, more than anyone else’s, to seek the seven keys that will keep magic and Fillory alive.
Meanwhile, the book also fills us in on Julia’s background in magic. While the previous book focused on how Quentin learned the art in the (more or less) safe environment of Brakebills, alternating chapters of this book show us how Julia made do in the harsh, painful world of hedge magic. Her search for magical enlightenment takes her through many dark places, in the outside world as well as in her own heart. By the time she joins up with Quentin again, she has begun a transformation that will only be completed when her oldest friend makes the ultimate sacrifice for her. And that, if I can say so without spoiling everything for you, is why this book takes such a shockingly tragic turn at the end—the type of ending that, were there not hope of another installment yet to come, might lead to a rise in Zoloft prescriptions.
I am happy to say, that hope exists. This sequel to The Magicians will soon (in August 2014) become the middle installment of a trilogy. Look for Book 3, The Magician’s Land, now available for pre-order. Meanwhile, you can enjoy this dark, emotionally deep, unflinchingly honest work of contemporary fantasy with the guilt-free assurance that it also measures up as serious literature. Often bawdy (Adult Content Warning!), sometimes eerie (Occult Content Warning!), full of strange creatures and danger and action and weirdness and gut-shaking comedy, it’s the full package—rounded off by a message of solidarity with those suffering from chronic mental illness. It’s Narnia for the grown-up and disillusioned—It’s Harry Potter for the clinically depressed—and it doesn’t offer easy (i.e., fake) answers.