What if the magical land from the books you loved as a child was real and needed you to save it? This was the thrilling premise of Lev Grossman's The Magicians, which turned out to be the first of a trilogy of novels that chronicle, thus far, the adventures of one Quentin Coldwater, the young hero who got to find out. That novel began with Quentin heading off to his Princeton alumni interview, wishing that, instead of college, he could discover a way into the land of Fillory, the magical kingdom he knew only from the five-novel series he loved as a child.
That alumni interview turns out badly — the interviewer is dead — but Quentin leaves with a manila envelope granting him an entrance exam for Brakebills, a Hogwarts-on-the-Hudson in upstate New York, where he is inducted into a secret league of magicians. There Quentin gets his wish — he learns not only that Fillory is real, it needs him and his disaffected overachieving friends to defend it.
With this, Grossman's franchise set the stakes high. The first novel was an adventure packed with smart mystical fun, complete with savvy nods to those childhood books you might never get over, by Susan Cooper, C. S. Lewis, and yes, J. K. Rowling. He made a sleek novel that gave us the dark side to Pottermania and how it came to be, even as it one-upped Gossip Girl with trouble-making teen roues. How to follow up that?
Grossman asked more questions: What if all your dreams came true and you still needed your Nardil? What if magic alone is not enough?
His sequel, The Magician King, catches up with our wizard prodigies, now ruling as the kings and queens of Fillory, their reward for rescuing it. The novel begins in ways that parallel The Magicians: Cue Quentin, still unhappy, but now King Quentin of Fillory, what his teen self had dreamed of being. But instead of reigning as a proper and attentive royal, he's getting fat from his life of magical leisure. His friends King Eliot, Queen Julia and Queen Janet aren't doing much better.
Attempting to outrace the dread that sets in after receiving a terrifying omen of doom for Fillory at the novel's beginning, Quentin leaves on a quest to a faraway island behind on its tax payments, sailing a rehabbed shipwreck call The Muntjac, with a small crew that includes an old high school flame, the very Goth Queen Julia, something of a wreck herself. It's his hope this little quest will rehabilitate him too, and clarify his feelings for Julia. He is much as he was in the first novel: still hoping to find his happiness on the other side of some impossible unknown, be it the haunting and haunted Julia or the far edge of Fillory's map.
When Quentin discovers the tax-cheat island holds a clue to a richer quest, for a golden key, he chases it, and to his surprise this lands him and Julia on the sidewalk in front of Quentin's parents' home, dressed like Ren-Fair escapees and with no passage back to Fillory. It's a classic comedic pratfall but also a pure Aristotelian peripeteia. It's pure Grossman, as well, a moment full of mixed longing, schadenfreude, wit and suspense. These are the ley lines of Grossman's sensibility, visible in the addictive details of our world, as reimagined by him: the network of anarchist safe houses across the US where Julia, who did not get into Brakebills, learned magic; the no-nonsense Australian witch who jailbreaks her iPhone with spells; the minor spirits who hang around colleges, teaching charms to co-eds in exchange for sex; the elite and secretive online support group for depressives that masks a cabal of hacker wizards.
The novel's structure is the bravura performance, with the quest in the present crosscut regularly by flashback chapters from Julia's past, the two timelines intersecting at the climax. We discover the old wound that binds Julia and Quentin to Fillory's doom — and with it, the book's true precipitating moment, as well as what is at stake for this world — moments before the novel's climax. The payoff is spectacular, a climax reinventing what we know of both novels thus far in the trilogy.
The result is a spellbinding stereograph, a literary adventure novel that is also about privilege, power and the limits of being human. The Magician King is a triumphant sequel, surpassing, I think, the original. I can't wait for the next one.
The Harry Potter franchise has its last hurrah on Friday, and fans like me are facing a forcible graduation from the protection of a fictional universe we've always known. I was 7 when Harry began, but I'm 21 now, and it's time to broaden my horizons beyond Hogwarts.
But what to pick up first? To me, the perfect post-Potter book isn't an imitator, but rather something entirely different (darker, perhaps, or less padded with childhood optimism) that's laced with threads of familiar territory. Through striking and unexpected lenses, these three books give new life to my favorite foundations of Harry's literary magic.
By Lev Grossman, Paperback, 416 pages, Viking Adult, list price: $16.
Cry derivative all you want — Lev Grossman's novel, hailed as Harry Potter for adults, is all that and more. Combine Narnia, Potter and your sullen, booze-fueled college existentialist phase, and you'll have the world of Quentin Coldwater, a high school senior from Brooklyn who finds himself enrolled at Brakebills College, where he studies to be a magician. It's everything you'd want from a freewheeling postgrad wizardry experience, and the magic itself is wonderfully scientific — messy, sprawling, while technical in a way that Potter forgoes. But it's in the self-reflective thread of Quentin's journey, which culminates in a true-to-genre magical quest undercut by a vein of harsh realism, that The Magicians shines. The endgame is a heartrending, cathartic examination of the nature of magic and our relationship to the stories we wanted to live in as kids — required reading for anyone trying to recover from a lifelong love affair with a fictional world.
By Orson Scott Card, Paperback, 352 pages, Top Science Fiction, List Price $6.99.
The first installment in Orson Scott Card's classic science-fiction series offers a gripping study of how to make a soldier, told through the eyes of child prodigy Andrew "Ender" Wiggin. Set at a futuristic school where kids learn the art of war through battle simulators, Ender's Game shows the vicious toll that thankless expectation exerts on young people, while Ender's own journey has an uneasy sort of "chosen one" edge to it. Card expertly twists your emotions as you watch the boy genius molded — not entirely with his own permission — into the perfect leader, with his capacity for love and hurt compartmentalized behind ruthless cunning. Ender's voice is a mesmerizing mix of childlike wonder and calculating cynicism, and it's stunningly easy to get lost in his war games. This exemplary piece of sci-fi is a chilling and heartbreaking take on what happens when children inherit war.
The Secret History
By Donna Tartt, Paperback, 576 pages, Vintage, list price: $16.
Donna Tartt's acclaimed novel centers on a group of classics majors at a small college in New England whose aspirations toward antiquity careen terrifyingly out of control. But folded into the thrilling story, which is tinged with a crisp, dizzied academic appeal, are dark ruminations on the gifts and curses of the ancients. These ubiquitous archetypes, models and moral codes make up every story we know to some degree — whether it's a reluctant hero's quest, a battle between good and evil or simply a journey through a life. In The Secret History, Tartt offers a fascinating perspective on the influence of the classics on our lives, with a stunningly written moral narrative that warps and coils in on itself to reveal truths about good and evil that most would be afraid to discover.
These books aren't the fantastical J.K. Rowling adventures of my childhood, and they're certainly far less cheerful than a certain epilogue. But they embody what I'll always love about Harry Potter — meditations on magic, morality and growing up, shot through with the understanding that while real life isn't always just like storybooks, there's learning in that, too.
Annie Ropeik is an intern at NPR's All Things Considered and lives in Silver Spring, Md.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.
On first glance, Lev Grossman's new novel, The Magicians, looks very much like a Harry Potter story, only with slightly older characters, and an American setting. The hero, Quentin, is a teenager from Brooklyn on his way to a Princeton admissions interview when he's whisked through a portal to an Academy of Magic called Brakebills.
But Quentin differs from Harry Potter in that he reads fantasy novels, and he's enchanted to discover that the magic he's longed for all his life actually exists. Grossman says he's always wondered why Potter wasn't a fan of the genre:
"If I had grown up the way Harry did — in an abusive, loveless step-family — all I would have done was read fantasy. I would have been consumed by these ... stories about escape and power. And I always wondered why Harry wasn't a fantasy reader," he says.
Grossman, who works as the book critic for Time magazine, says that when he was young, he was particularly taken with J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia saga.
In Grossman's novel, the hero is obsessed with a series of books about a magical land called Fillory, which is much like Narnia. But at Brakebills, Quentin discovers that in real magic, things don't always work out the way they do in fantasy novels. When Quentin casts a prank spell in a magic class, he inadvertently summons a beast who eats one of his classmates. As he writes:
Things like this didn't happen in Fillory: there was conflict, and even violence, but it was always heroic and ennobling, and anybody really good and important who bought it along the way came back to life at the end of the book. Now there was a rip in the corner of his perfect world, and fear and sadness were pouring in like freezing filthy water through a busted dam.
Elizabeth Hand, who reviewed The Magicians for Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine, says the novel is beautifully written, with well-drawn, believable characters.
"One of the coolest aspects of this book is that the students at Brakebills College act like real college students," says Hand. "This is not your mother's Hogwarts. ... these are kids or students who are having relationships with each other. Some of them are having romantic or sexual relationships. There are students who are gay as well as straight. Students occasionally making references to drugs."
In the Harry Potter books and their film adaptations — as in most fantasy stories — there is a powerful malevolent being that the hero fights in an epic battle. But Grossman says he purposely left the villain out of his novel. He says that without a "big bad villain" Quentin's world is more complex.
"When you take [the villain] away, suddenly the universe gets a whole lot more complicated," he explains. "Suddenly it's all shades of gray. And it's not clear who belongs where. And it's not clear what magic is for."
In the end, the young magicians in Grossman's novel do use their magic to battle evil, but only after discovering a portal to the magical realm of Fillory, which they thought only existed in their novels.
The Magicians is Grossman's third novel, but it's his first fantasy book. The author says he used to care about being a "literary novelist," but now all he cares about is telling a good story.
"There's a strong tradition in the 20th century that is against storytelling," he says. "I wanted to move past that. I wanted to write something that was pure pleasure. ... and I felt that in doing so, you didn't have to give up the kind of beautiful, lyrical self-aware literary language that we associate with literary novels."
Grossman, who is now writing a sequel to The Magicians, says magic is a perfect metaphor for the power of language: Words can cast a spell, and change the universe.