An unhappy boy is plucked from the humdrum banality of his everyday life and initiated into a hidden world of magic and adventure when he receives an unexpected invitation to an elite school of witchcraft and wizardry. At first, he couldn't be happier—but as time goes on, he comes to learn that his exciting new life has its own dark secrets, some far more disturbing than he could have ever imagined.
No, it's not the Harry Potter series—it's The Magicians by Lev Grossman, an adult take on the Hogwarts mythos that took the fantasy subgenre by storm in 2009 (and which is decidedly not for kids). Now Grossman, who on Saturday won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer at the annual Hugo Awards, is back with a sequel, The Magician King, which begins where the last book left off.
Its hero, Quentin Coldwater, is now one of the four kings and queens of the magical land of Fillory (Grossman's twisted answer to C.S. Lewis' Narnia). Just as The Magicians played with the clichés of magical colleges, The Magician King subverts and deconstructs the quest narrative, borrowing its plot outline from Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. But where Prince Caspian was searching for the seven lost lords of Narnia, Quentin's voyage begins in a much more mundane vein: He's gone to the Outer Island to collect back taxes.
The fierce interest in the series has surprised even Grossman, who did not even originally intend for The Magicians to have a sequel. Now he's planning to write a third book to complete the series. "The first one was basically from a standing start," he told me. "No one knew who I was, no one was waiting for the book ... It's very different this time."
On forums and on Twitter, fans of the series are saying they prefer The Magician King—a high bar for any sequel. "When I was writing this, I thought that I was sort of writing in the shadow of The Magicians. People liked that one—what the hell am I going to do now?" Grossman said. "But a lot of people like The Magician King better ... I think I must have learned a lot writing The Magicians and must have been able to apply that in the writing of The Magician King. I figured out a little bit more about what my voice was and how it sounded on the page."
In a post on fantasy-matters.com, Grossman elaborated a bit more on the writing of The Magician King, an intense two-year sprint from which he feels he "barely escaped with my life." Crucial to his creative process was the gathering of references he wanted to make and scenes he wanted to borrow and steal, from source texts ranging from Voyage of the Dawn Treader to Total Recall to Iain Banks, the Venture Brothers, Watership Down and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. Grossman's freewheeling aesthetic of allusion and appropriation—and his unashamed openness about this borrowing—makes him somewhat unique among contemporary writers, for whom "originality" remains the buzzword. "I'm not really the greatest theorist of my own work," Grossman said. "But it hasn't escaped my notice that I enjoy and am sort of energized by this kind of sparring with other books that I habitually do. Which I think all writers do—the question is whether it's above or below the line, or just subtextual. I'm very much a [Harold] Bloomian in that respect: I think that's a real thing, the anxiety of influence. I find it incredibly energizing to feel not just that I'm writing in a vacuum but in the context of other books, or against certain books."
In some ways this approach makes him closer to a fan fiction writer than a traditional novelist, a label he's uncomfortable with but cannot quite bring himself to reject. "I think it's fair to say," he said, "though it's a bit loaded to call it fan fiction. Fan fiction is part of a larger tradition that also includes things like Wide Sargasso Sea and The Hours and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: books that engage with and borrow from other texts in an explicit way. I completely see myself as part of that tradition—and if Narnia had in fact been in the public domain, who knows, there might have been no Fillory. I might have just written about Narnia."
In a recent piece in Time, where he is a senior writer, Grossman stood up for fan fiction writers, who typically have been degraded as unimaginative thieves of other people's work. He sees fan fiction instead as akin to remixing and sampling, and argues that the practice of fan fiction "challenges just about everything we thought we knew about art and creativity."
"I adore the way fan fiction writers engage with and critique source texts, but manipulating them and breaking their rules," Grossman said. "Some of it is straight-up homage, but a lot of [fan fiction] is really aggressive towards the source text. One tends to think of it as written by total fanboys and fangirls as a kind of worshipful act, but a lot of times you'll read these stories and it'll be like 'What if Star Trek had an openly gay character on the bridge?' And of course the point is that they don't, and they wouldn't, because they don't have the balls, or they are beholden to their advertisers, or whatever. There's a powerful critique, almost punk-like anger, being expressed there—which I find fascinating and interesting and cool."
It's an aesthetic Grossman takes very seriously. Speaking to themillions.com, Grossman said: "Initially when I would make allusions to C.S. Lewis, I would avoid overtly criticizing or satirizing Lewis's work, out of respect, and a worry that I would outrage Narnia fans. I quickly realized that the danger isn't going too far, it's not going far enough. If you're going to borrow from Lewis, you have to travesty him, openly poke fun at him, say something about him. Anything less and readers will see your allusions as merely plagiarism."
Ironically for Grossman, The Magicians really is something of a rip-off, though not of Hogwarts or Narnia—but of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. He admits that he unabashedly lifted the narrative structure of The Magicians almost wholesale from Waugh.
"Brideshead is one of my favorite novels, and I didn't read it until I was in my 30s," he says. "It's built around this innocence and experience structure: People go to Oxford, and then terrible things that happen to them in their later lives. I substituted Brakebills for Oxford, and then it was off to the races."
"I figured I could get away with a lot," he laughed, "because the theft would be untraceable—because I was taking it across genre lines."
This fondness for Brideshead Revisited will likely make an appearance in the third book in the series, which he has yet to write. (Grossman doesn't even have a contract for the book yet, though given the excitement about The Magician King, it's hard to imagine he'll have trouble getting one.) Naturally, he was close-mouthed on the subject, but was willing to drop hints. "I know certain things about it," he said, "though it's still so inchoate that it would be a little bit irresponsible to talk about it. I know that I want them to go back to Brakebills. I want them to go back to the university, for at least part of the book."
"My daughter, who is 7, is currently on her second time through the Harry Potter books. I'm remembering now why I was so attracted to that subject in the first place. It's such a rich environment for storytelling."