‘Undomesticating’ Magic: Harry Potter for Adults?

Review: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

by Wynter K Miller

Historically, I’ve not been the type of reader who rereads, a fact that is wholly at odds with my personality. In every other respect, I worship habit and repetition. I eat the same thing for breakfast every single day and have zero desire to deviate — no, thanks, please take your pancakes elsewhere, I want my favorite cereal and I feel uncomfortable with your attempt to expand my horizons. I can rationalize my reluctance to reread the same text twice with very valid arguments: I’m going to die soon, well before I’ve had a chance to read even a fraction of all the books I want to read, so how can I possibly justify rereading?

On the other hand, the real (and less valid) reason I’m not a rereader is at least partly because I’m afraid the book — a book I clearly love enormously because I’m considering reading it more than once — will not be as good the second time. That said, as I’ve gotten older, my disinterest in rereading has been superseded by my interest in proselytizing. Reading is important to the important people in my life, so when I recommend books, I feel a responsibility to not be the lazy asshole who responds to a recommendation fail with the excuse, “Oh, sorry, I haven’t read that book since high school, I guess I don’t remember it that well.” (I also feel a responsibility to acknowledge here that I’m not a perfect human and because I am genuinely worried about my looming death, I am sometimes still the lazy asshole who recommends something I haven’t read since high school and don’t remember that well. I’m sorry, friends!) All of this is a very long-winded way of saying: I’m not a rereader but lately I’ve been doing some rereading.

I read the first installment in Lev Grossman’s trilogy for the first time in 2011 and loved it. It was marketed as “Harry Potter for adults” and, though that’s a simplistic description of what it is, it’s also shorthand that does exactly what it’s supposed to do: entice Harry Potter fans. I reread The Magicians in 2019 and paradoxically appreciated it more (for its character-building) and liked it less (for its climax). I picked up the second installment, The Magician King, in 2021 (after reading it for the first time in 2011) because I’ve become obsessed with a podcast and its archives contain a great interview with Lev Grossman that re-piqued my interest. Specifically, in the interview, Grossman says that he wrote his trilogy with an awareness of the criticism that was levied at J.K. Rowling, particularly in an opinion piece written by A.S. Byatt about the version of magic that Harry and his friends learn at Hogwarts. Despite considering myself heavily ensconced in the Potterverse, I had no idea what Grossman was talking about.

The mention of a piece of literary criticism about a beloved childhood series (which, for the record, I still love as an adult) that I hadn’t read and that sparked an ongoing and lively debate about the particular appeal of magic was the equivalent of telling me: people you want to be friends with are having a book party and you weren’t invited.

In the interview, Grossman says, “I knew what A.S. Byatt meant when she wrote about Harry Potter … I was conscious that magic had become, somehow, from this crazy thing that Gandalf can do in Middle Earth … to this thing that can be taught to schoolchildren … I wanted to introduce more difficulty to it, more unpredictability to it, more inexplicability to it — can magic be truly magical anymore if its behavior is so completely reproducible? [Or] does it simply become a slightly weird branch of science?”

I went out and read Byatt’s piece immediately. And then I reread The Magician King.

The Magician King picks up two years after The Magicians. Quentin and his friends are living in Fillory (i.e., Grossman’s version of Narnia) as kings and queens — but even as a king, Quentin is still very much Quentin. Perhaps more so than any other character I’ve met on the page, Quentin embodies the truth of the adage “wherever you go, there you are.” Which is to say, magic didn’t make Quentin happy in The Magicians, and a crown doesn’t make him happy in The Magician King. Much as Quentin buried his misery in the first novel with Brakebills and spellwork and ambition, he buries his misery in the second novel with a capital-letters Epic Quest. And because there isn’t clearly a motivating reason for the quest, Quentin invents one. A remote island located on the outer edge of Fillory has neglected to pay its taxes; Quentin resolves to collect what is owed. And, befitting of an adventure, he outfits his trip accordingly: he charters a glorious ship, conscripts a swashbuckling crew (including a magic sloth and the best swordsman in all the land), and is accompanied by his love interest, the darkly troubled Queen Julia. Upon making landfall at Outer Island, everything is not as it seems — or, actually, everything is exactly as it seems, dashing the hopes of every reader (Quentin included) raised to believe adventure novels contain, well, adventures. Much of Quentin’s Quest continues in this vein. Quentin and Julia are accidentally sent back to Earth, but manage to return to Fillory, but are waylaid by a detour to the underworld, but return to Fillory, and etc. The whole Quest is, frankly, fairly boring, a meandering journey from point A to … point A. Thankfully, the Quest is one of two narratives, and the second is more interesting.

In the first book, Quentin escapes his nonmagical life via an entrance exam for Brakebills University of Magical Pedagogy. Julia fails the exam that Quentin passes and more or less disappears from the narrative until she reappears as a “hedge witch” (i.e., a self-taught witch who practices outside the safety and frameworks provided by institutions like Brakebills). In The Magician King, Grossman explores Julia’s lost years — the span of time between her failure of the entrance exam and her reappearance in The Magicians’ final chapter. And it is in Julia’s narrative, more so than anywhere else, that Grossman addresses the criticism Byatt levied at Rowling. Namely, it is with Julia’s narrative that The Magicians truly becomes Harry Potter for adults versus Harry Potter fanfiction.

In Julia’s narrative, magic is most definitely difficult, unpredictable, and inexplicable. More than that, it’s dark and dirty; its practitioners resemble drug addicts more than anything else. This magic — street magic — ruins lives. And as it turns out, like many drug addicts, Julia would have been better off just saying no. She loses more than human beings can lose without also losing their humanity. There is one scene, in particular, involving Julia’s rape by a trickster god that, as a female, I found excruciating.

So much of the plot development in The Magician King feels formulaic, like the template of an adventure rather than a true adventure. Quentin’s story isn’t much more than fluff — the type of content an author adds to fill in the “middle.” But in Julia’s narrative, there are ugly surprises and Grossman asks — without answering, because there aren’t real answers to these questions — unsparing questions.

Is what you’re chasing worth what it will cost you?

As a standalone novel, The Magician King is a 1-star book. A plot that is 50% successful is, after all, still 50% unsuccessful. But The Magician King is not a standalone novel; it’s Book 2 of a trilogy and as such, I think it constitutes a solid middle. Further, if Grossman’s intention was to “talk back to Rowling” — if he intended, to borrow his phrasing, to “undomesticate” magic — The Magician King does that. In 2011, I gave it 5 stars. In 2021, I think it’s deserving of less. But I’m still rereading the third book.

Rating: 3 stars

Wynter K Miller is an editor and writer in California.