Grossman leaves us in his first book with a shellshocked Quentin Coldwater who escapes into the magical land of Fillory, after having suffered and paid for all his mistakes. Sounds very traditional, right? Well, the second installment deals with the perils of escape itself. What comes after having conquered evil and horrible foes and having learned great and terrible magics, after becoming kings and queens in a magical land, after living the fairytale to be exact? Well, the answer according to Grossman is nothing.
We find Quentin, bored and frustrated with the life that he is leading. The edges of adventure and danger have faded from Fillory, leaving behind only a decadent luxury that leaves little to the imagination. In a desperate attempt to find a way to inject some thrill back into his life, he embarks on a long voyage to the very edge of the magical world to collect… taxes. This very mundane quest soon turns into the search for a golden key. Grossman's fantasy world, however, doesn't just adhere to the fantasy rules but adds to them. Instead of Quentin finding the key and getting his second happily ever after, he somehow manages to get kicked out of Fillory and gets sent back to Earth.
Once Quentin returns to Earth, we once again diverge from the norms of traditional fantasy writing. In most books, authors generally come up with one way of using magic. Usually it is a clever and unthought-of way, giving the readers a pleasant surprise. Grossman in the first book created a wholly academic style of magic reminiscent of Harry Potter but with people failing and dropping, much like a real school. In this book, Grossman shows us how magic is not just confined to magic schools. There is a vibrant community of street magicians in the world, with their own ranking system and their own way of doing things. And Quentin, educated and cultured, doesn't have any idea how to navigate it. What ensues is Quentin getting more adventure than he bargained for and a side story following Julia (his high school crush) is brilliant and haunting at the same time.
Like in the first book, Grossman explores a world with magic and how people function in it. Instead of wizards living in hidey holes constantly afraid of normal people, in this world we see magicians just trying to keep themselves entertained and occupied. And like most people, magicians are prone to their human failings as well, but nothing quite so romanticised. They have the same insecurities and the same problems that plague us all.
The themes explored here are a lot darker than the first book as well. Self-discovery is well and good, but if something as fundamentally life-changing and character altering as magic is involved, what happens to a person in the pursuit of it? These are questions that aren't generally addressed in other fantasy books. And Grossman seems to like the old adage of innocence lost to a disturbing degree, because instead of enlightenment, most of his characters only bring themselves more grief. And like in the first book, Grossman's conclusion is the same. You don't need fantastical monsters; you just need people being people to destroy the world. Magic just accelerates things.
The Magician King is the second part of this series. And from the way Grossman is going, I can't wait for the third book. Only not quite as breathlessly as he once used to wait for Harry Potter books.