(Warning: I will now spoil most of the plot of The Magician King by Lev Grossman, and all of the ending.)
If The Magicians was messing around with tropes of portal fantasies and schools of magic (for more, see Elizabeth Hand’s excellent review in F&SF), The Magician King is two parallel narratives playing with the idea of the quest fantasy. Quentin Coldwater, Brakebills graduate and King of Fillory, goes on a quest to find a quest and stumbles into one on the way, involving seven golden keys and the means to save the world of magic. The other narrative tells the story of Julia, Quentin’s high school friend, who didn’t go to exclusive magical college Brakebills but uncovered powerful magic on her own, and what happened to her along the way leading up to her surprise appearance at the end of The Magicians.
Julia and Quentin’s stories diverge at the point of the Brakebills entrance exam. Quentin passes the test, and gets admitted to Brakebills. Julia fails, and should have had all memory of Brakebills wiped, except the job was less than perfectly done, and Julia is left with memories of something she’s missing, that doesn’t fall into place until she sees Quentin again. She goes in search of magic, dredging up every clue she can find, hanging on to the tiniest pieces of magic, ruining her relationships and her life, while Quentin gets the all-you-can-eat buffet of magical learning at Brakebills. We get the flipside of the scene from The Magicians, where Julia shows off the one spell she knows, and Quentin is thoroughly unimpressed. She nearly gives up the quest altogether, but she chances upon the world of underground magic, more fragments of magic put together and copied and passed around, and rises up through the ranks of the secret magical world until she gets admitted to the most elite group of all. (Incidentally, it is Julia’s magical connections that help Quentin and Julia during Quentin’s quest, when the professors of Brakebills are utterly useless, but Quentin is still horrified by the thought of all these unsupervised magicians running around.)
Julia and her friends want to go further, and as they research and investigate and dig into the source of their magical power, it becomes clear that whatever is going to happen has terrible, terrible consequences for magic in the world, and that Quentin’s quest is to save it. Quentin must pass into the underworld, and Julia goes with him, only none of the dead can see or hear her, and we get a hint of what she lost on her quest for magical power:
‘”I am starting to understand,” said Julia. “It is really gone. The part of me that was human, the part of me that could die – it is gone, Quentin, I have lost it forever. That is why they cannot see me.” She was talking to him, but her black eyes were fixed on the distance. “I am never going to be human again. I did not understand it till now. I have lost my shade. I suppose I knew it. I just did not want to understand it.’
Back in the past timeframe, Julia and her friends attempt to summon a god, or at least a godlike being, in the hope of increasing their magical power. They think they will meet Our Lady Underground, a hopefully-benevolent goddess, and gain her help – being the kind of highly focused nerds they are, they map out the options of how a god might respond, and what sacrifice they might require, symbolic or otherwise, for her wisdom. We know it’s not going to go exactly how they hope.
They’ve been tricked. The ritual summons not Our Lady Underground, but Reynard the trickster god. Like the inadvertent summoning of the Beast in The Magicians, we get another of the horrible scenes which reminds us how very powerful and terrifying magic is in Grossman’s world, as Reynard kills all the magicians in turn. All bar Julia and Asmodeus, the youngest of them. Julia offers her life up as a sacrifice, if he will let Asmodeus live; Reynard accepts her offer, offers to give her the power she seeks, but he rapes her instead, giving her the power and taking away what makes her human.
‘It was something invisible that had been with her always, and Reynard ripped it away. She didn’t know what it was, but she felt it go, and she shuddered when she felt it.Without it she was something different, something other than what she had been before. Reynard had given her power, and taken something in payment that she would have died rather than give up. But she didn’t get to choose.’
I hate this scene, and narrowly avoided throwing the book across the room in disgust. Julia is always there as a contrast to Quentin, who always expected something like Brakebills to fall into his lap – “When he walked into that room he’d buckled right down and killed that exam, because magic school? That was just the kind of thing he’d been waiting to happen his whole life” – while Julia always planned to take control and make things happen for herself. And she does, she fights for everything she gets, chooses to pursue this course and find magic and become a magician, along with all the others than Quentin scorns for not going to exclusive magical prep schools, and then all her agency gets taken away, and she has no choices at all.
At the very end of the book, after Julia has come to terms with the loss of her shade, and become some kind of divine daughter of Our Lady Underground, she gets the chance to journey to a new world, one as far beyond Fillory as Fillory is from our world. And she can’t:
‘”You and your friends invoked the gods, and drew our attention to us, and brought them back. You betrayed this world, however unknowingly, in order to increase your own power. There must be consequences.”‘
Julia’s friends, the ones she had come to think of as family, where she had finally found some contentment, are nearly all dead, and she was raped by an angry god so hard he ripped out what made her human, but that isn’t enough – she must be further punished for daring to try and take more magical power than she was allowed. For doing magic outside the system, Julia will be blocked from passing through the portal. To his credit, Quentin spots the hypocrisy, and he tells the gatekeepers he will take Julia’s sins and punishment upon himself, leaving her free to move on. It’s the culmination of the process Quentin goes through on his own quest – becoming the hero, and paying the price – but it comes at the expense of Julia getting to make her own decisions, and leaves her free to find peace only by someone else’s sacrifice. I like Quentin’s story, I like that he gets to the point where he can risk the happiness he’s found and not be destroyed by the consequences. I just don’t find him as interesting as Julia, and I wish she didn’t end up as the catalyst to his plot.