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3 late-summer novels too good to miss

Our final fiction roundup of the summer features an eclectic lineup: One is a fantasy epic, the second is a quirky first novel about an avant-garde family, and the third is a somber look at the kidnapping of a political dissident. All, however, are really good.

- Yvonne Zipp

The Magician King, b\y Lev Grossman, Viking Adult, 416 pp.

1. The Magician King, by Lev Grossman

Quentin Coldwater isn't really enjoying his happy ending. Oh, he's king of the magical realm described in his favorite childhood books, along with three of his friends. And he's a wizard to boot. But he doesn't know what to do with himself besides practice drawing his sword (trickier than it looks) and get fat from the castle cooking.

“If I were a Fillorian I would depose me as an aristocratic parasite,” he tells his friend Eliot, now the high king in The Magician King, Lev Grossman's engrossing sequel to 2009's "The Magicians."

Obsessed with books about Fillory (which bears a strong resemblance to Narnia), Quentin gleefully gave up Princeton in “The Magicians” when he discovered that Brakebills, a school for witchcraft and wizardry, was currently accepting enrollment. (Think a more decadent Hogwarts set in upstate New York. Professor McGonagall would surely not approve of the student shenanigans.) Then it turned out his beloved world of Fillory was not only real, but in danger.

Fillory turned out to be way more dark and scary than in the books. Quentin nearly died, and his girlfriend, Alice, ended up sacrificing herself to take out the monster.

In “The Magician King,” Grossman cleverly takes on magical kingdoms' unfortunate tendency to spit their chosen ones out again, as Quentin struggles to learn how to become a hero in deed and not just in name. While on a quest reminiscent of “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” Quentin and Queen Julia, who is faring even worse than Quentin, find themselves tumbling back into the real world in front of his parents' house.

“The Magician King” is divided between Quentin's quest to get back to Fillory and the story of how Julia, a hedge witch who flunked the Brakebills exam, came by her powers while Quentin was off wearing the school tie.

Once Julia realized that magic was real but that “Hagrid's motorcycle would never rumble outside her door. No creamy-enveloped letters would ever come flooding down her chimney,” she became obsessed. She stumbled on safe houses where outcasts like her exchange spells. Julia “hadn't had the Brakebills faculty standing over her for four years making sure she colored inside the lines,” and it turns out that some of those lines were there for a reason.

If anything, “The Magician King” is more accomplished than its successor (although Alice is sorely missed). The parallel structure ratchets up the tension, and Quentin learns the hard way that even boy wizards have to grow up sometime.


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