The Big Idea: Lev Grossman

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit I was partying with Lev Grossman last night. He’s here in Reno for this year’s Worldcon, and last night he threw a book party for The Magician King, the sequel to his best-selling fantasy novel The Magicians. As an author, he had a fair amount to celebrate: not only was his book released this week, but the previous book was a New York Times bestseller — and here in Reno, he finds himself nominated for the Campbell Award for best new science fiction/fantasy author. That’s worth a beer or two.

But while Grossman was celebrating many things last night, in today’s Big Idea he focuses on more serious aspects of The Magician King and how some of the elements of this sequel not only follow (and comment on) established tropes in fantasy, but how those tropes intersect with real life in surprising and intriguing ways — which help him make his magical land of Fillory an unexpected place.


I’ll tell you a weird thing about me: My mother was Lucy Pevensie.

Or OK, obviously my mom was not Lucy Pevensie, since Lucy Pevensie is a fictional character from The Chronicles of Narnia. But a lot of the same things that happened to Lucy Pevensie also happened to my mom. Both she and Lucy grew up in London in the 1930s. When WWII started, they were both evacuated from London – sent to a strange house deep in the quiet of the English countryside, to stay with a strange family, while Hitler bombed the crap out of their childhood home.

Lucy Pevensie, of course, found herself in a creaky old mansion with a quirky, avuncular professor. She hid in a wardrobe and found her way into Narnia. My mom — being from a very poor neighborhood, and class tensions in England being what they were – was deemed too uncouth by her hosts and promptly re-evacuated back to London, where fortunately all the bombs missed her anyway.

Later my mom won a scholarship to Oxford, where she studied with C.S. Lewis. Suffice it to say that in our house we took our Narnia pretty seriously.

The last time I wrote a Big Idea column it was about The Magicians. That was a book about an obsessive fantasy nerd who ends up going to a real college for magic, and from there to a magical fantasy world called Fillory. In a lot of ways that book was my way of taking Narnia seriously: What would it really feel like to go there? Would it be like it was in the books, or would it be subtly different? Darker, less perfect, more real? How would you know which side to fight for, Aslan or the White Queen? How would it make you feel to get your heart’s desire and discover that it wasn’t the end of all your problems, it was just the beginning?

Since then I’ve written a sequel to The Magicians called The Magician King. The Magicians was a coming-of-age story, about a bunch of teenagers growing up and learning about magic. Now they’re all grown up (or at any rate the ones who survived are). At the beginning of The Magician King they are – much like the Pevensies were at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – kings and queens of Fillory. The hero, Quentin, is ready to do what heroes do: go on a quest.

The Magician King is my shot at taking a quest story seriously. One of the big inspirations for it was Watchmen. Moore and Gibbons asked, basically, what would it really be like to put on tights and beat up muggers? What kind of person would do that, and what would it do to them? I tried to think seriously about what going on a quest would really be like: Why would you go, and how would it play out, if you did it now, and not in a book but in reality? I don’t know what your life is like, but mine is a lot different from the kind of quest they go on in, say, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. (Great as that book is, and much as I love it.) Sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking for when you set out, and sometimes you don’t realize you’ve found it till years after the quest is over. In stories if you act nobly enough and solve enough puzzles and slay enough monsters, you generally end up sitting on top of a big pile of gold. In reality it doesn’t work like that at all. In reality you generally end up doing your heroic stuff when no one is watching, and even when you win there’s no guarantee you’ll walk away with the prize. Sometimes you end up with less than you had when you started.

That’s the Big Idea in The Magician King: being a hero in real life is a lot more complicated than it is in books, even when your real life has magic and Fillory and all the rest of it in it. It’s harder than it looks, and it’s hard in ways that are very different from what you expect.

Or to put it another way, sometimes when you open a wardrobe you get to go to Narnia. And sometimes you just get busted for snooping and sent back to London to watch the bombs fall.


The Magician King: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

32 Comments on “The Big Idea: Lev Grossman”

  1. I already have this book on my “To Acquire” list. Looking forward to reading it.

    This is the first time that I have seen “Big Idea” post that did not include a picture of the book cover or a quick intro blurb by John. Whats up?

  2. I was late to the game and just read The Magicians last week, then passed it to my son, who finished it yesterday. This is next on my list, as soon as I finish Ready Player One.

  3. Like sending an email with an attachment and getting a “where’s the attachment reply”. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

    It was disconcerting for a moment when I started reading the post, I was thinking “what the heck is he writing about….” and then had the “Ah ha” moment as I realized what I was actually reading.

    The book has a very captivating cover.

  4. Great book, it arrived two weeks ago and was read immediately.
    Was the publication date here in Germany different from the rest of the world?

  5. Loved The Magicians. Did anyone else notice how stark Fillory was? Like excessively quiet or just plain spooky, and I’m not talking about the between-land of fountains. I’m sure the ‘feel’ of Fillory was no accident, but man! It made for uncomfortable reading. So different than the vibe of the school.

    I wonder, will The Magician King’s Fillory continue to feel quiet, ff’d up, and spooky? Or will it settle into something a little bit more comfortable? Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a complaint. Grossman has the talent to do whatever he wants. C’mon, he’s the genius between letting us see the pov of two humping foxes… I’m just wondering what kind of read I’m in for.

    That damn Fillory just wouldn’t leave me the hell alone.

  6. I love the first book and am about 60 % through this one. It is outstanding, the writing, characterization, and wit are first class. It is making me want to re-read The Magicians . . .and then re-read this one again.

  7. The Magicians is one of my favorite books. I recommend it every chance I get. Can’t wait to read The Magician King!

  8. Glad to know the audibook is good. I’ve been “reading” a lot in my car lately.

    But how can Grossman qualify for best new writer when his first novel came out in 1997 and his second in 2004? Is the Campbell Awards Best New Writer genre specific? meaning SF/F?

  9. The Magicians was one of my favorite books the year it was released and having re-read it this summer to prepare for The Magician King, I found I loved it even more. The Magician King was just as wonderful but definitely left me wanting to read more – not necessarily more about Fillory, but more about the Neitherlands, more about Penny and the Order, more about the mysterious “gods” busily rewiring the universe, and most importantly, more about Quentin and his friends. What do you do when the quest is over? We have real-life examples of course: the 12 Apollo astronauts who walked on the moon as the culmination of decades’ worth of training and preparation and the work of a 100,000 people around the country who enabled the dream. Those 12 men faced their futures in very different ways after going to their own new world. What will Quentin do?

  10. I’m very happy that this book is being published, because my wife and I are having our first child in a few weeks and that means I’m going to have lots of free time for reading when I take some time off work after the baby is born. This will let me catch up (finally!).

    Okay, I hear laughing. Why are you guys all laughing?

  11. I LOVE “The Magicians”–it has invaded my brain to the degree that I am semi-obsessed with making a film about it, a status enjoyed only by such books as “Ender’s Game,” Sandman, and a few obscure works (Bob Oeste’s wonderful Cold War novel “The Last Pumpkin Paper.”)

    Congratulations, Lev. Really looking forward to reading it.

  12. re: AlanM
    Based on the last three months of my life, if you can invent a good one-handed diaper changing routine you’ll have plenty of time to read.

  13. My reading group just happen to be reading “The Magicians” as we speak! (so to speak)

    I am looking forward to the sequel. I’m enjoying it so far!
    Nice coinkydink… the timing of Scalzi’s Whatever post!

  14. Heh. I’ve had this opened to read later, all day…since there was only one comment.
    You (John) had not fixed the intro/etc, yet. I was confused!
    Thank you John, for the timing of this column!

    I will forward link to the group!

    -Barb in Austin

  15. No disrespect to the Fillory books, but I personally would love to read the story of Lev’s mom, either a memoir or a fictionalized version. I am having a really hard time wrapping my head around the mindset that would send a child INTO the London Blitz.

  16. Yeah, I’d like to read a Lev Grossman book On Writing, with entire chapters about his mother and . . . Lewis. PS Scalzi has to get his writing book on Kindle already.

  17. I enjoyed Magicians very much, and am waiting until I start working for B&N again this fall to read the next (waiting for that employee discount).

    I have one favor, as someone who works in a brick and mortar store, worked for a long time for an independent, five years for Borders and now will (hopefully) be starting at B&N part time, could folks please not use “Kindle” as a generic word for e-books? There are many other options out there, and I don’t want to default cede the market to Amazon. Amazon is one of the few with a completely proprietary format, that won’t accept other file types, etc… And yes I do realize that it there is something to be said for the trajectory of my bookselling experience, and that Amazon is taking away business legitimately by having a better model.

    I do also have an MFA, and publish, but as I write poetry, not anything really remunerative I do rely on selling books to keep body and soul together. And I’m not liking what I see.

    No luddite, I have a Kobo e-reader myself, which I like as it has no DRM to speak of, and I can put my books from Baen e-scriptions on it as easy as books from Borders old or B&N’s website.

    I just ask that we don’t cede the war of terminology to Amazon. Kindle does not equal e-books. It is a broader and richer marketplace.

    Yrs in writing,


  18. Based on this post, I just downloaded Magicians in audio format. In all likelihood, I’ll be downloading the second book soon.

  19. Maybe those with Kindles are just talking about digital books from their perspective? It’s kind of like saying, “Hey, when is your music going to be on itunes?” But wait, nobody says that because the place where almost all music is sold is itunes. The expectation is that it will already be there. The only reason anyone is saying ‘Kindle’ at all is because digital releases aren’t always simultaneous and the people who are buying the most digital books are asking for title availability for their platform. Certainly not a bad thing. I wouldn’t care if somebody said, “Hey, when is your book going to be on the Nook?” But then, not many people are saying that. Wonder why?

    Sorry about your job, Stevens. I get depressed everytime I see my local Borders plastered in everything-must-go signs. %^(*ING Amazon bastards.

    Love me my Kindle,

  20. @David Tames #23

    Well, I do as poorly as anyone else at sweeping back the tide, and I’m not advocating any platform over another. If you read I did admit that Amazon is doing so well because they were the first with the most. They deserve it to a degree, they made it happen.

    I’m glad you get depressed when you see closing Borders. We had a sign up at ours last month, when they closed our bathrooms to save the liquidation company money to clean them, “No Restrooms available, try Amazon…”

    My point is that while I admit e-books are something in our future, I use them myself, and they have some advantage, we shouldn’t call them all “kindle books”. Lots of people, myself included, are trying to do interesting exciting stuff with e-books, that Amazon is trying hard to shut down.

    Yeah, some of the comenters here definitely were saying “when will it be available on my (brand name) Kindle” as a question, but there is a degree, you have to admit, that people focus on the Kindle as the e-book. I’m just asking people to look beyond that, whether to a Nook, Kobo, a reader on Android (Aikido comes to mind) or anything else.

    E-books have a lot of promise. Hey I’m a poet, we haven’t made money off writing since the 1800s, but e-books might be a way we can start to circulate poetry in a wider audience again, great!

    As a bookseller, a writer, and a reader, Amazon is not a friendly place for any for e-books, they are using their market share to control the market. I’m only asking, not to let them dominate the terminology. You may use a Kindle and love it, more power to you, but just like calling your small coffee a “tall” if you use their language, they have a hold.

    And I would be remiss not to point out there is more in this market. There should be more there, Amazon is not very interested in doing many things a robust e-book market could, and should do.

    With that I think I’ll download The Magician King in a neutral epub format and read it on an e-reader, as I can’t afford the hardback. Mr Grossman will (If he, which I’m certain he should have been, put digital rights in his contract) will get his royalty, I am looking forward to enjoying his work, and Amazon, believe you me, is not involved :). Mr. Grossman, really enjoyed the Magicians, handsell it all the time, and looking forward to reading the sequel!

    Best in writing.


  21. *** Could possibly be regarded as spoilers****

    I thought the first half of “The Magicians” was alright in its regurgitated CS Lewis meets Harry Potter kind of way. The 2nd half was utterly terrible. One of the worst endings I have read in awhile. It wasn’t just that the narrator ended up being one of the biggest douchebags of all time; there are MANY unlikable narrators out there that end up being brilliant characters; but it seemed as though I was intended to still like him or sympathize with him in some way. There just seemed to be this massive lack of authorial awareness as to how crap of a character this dude had become; the douchebaggery was just too much for me. It’s Holden fricken Caulfield whiny east-coast whiteboy angst all over again, but in a derivative fantasyland and with worse writing.

  22. @dirty wizard hunter #20: Scalzi’s book on writing (I assume you mean You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop) is available for the Kindle, just not through Amazon. It’s available for $6 at in most formats including mobi/Kindle, and as far as I know, is not georestricted.

    Congratulations to Mr. Grossman. I guess I ought to finally get around to reading my copy of The Magicians.

  23. @ Ted Stanulis #25

    I also did not enjoy ‘The Magicians’, so you aren’t alone. I don’t see the need to blast the book and author though. Enough people seem to enjoy his work and writing style, that he is at least somewhat liked. Instead I took my copy of the book and donated it to a local library so that those that do like his work, could find it and read it. Every reader doesn’t need to like every author, so find some you do and read their work.

  24. I liked The Magicians but I loved The Magician King and so did both of my teenagers, who each read it in one day. Also, Lev Grossman is a really nice guy and that’s always a reason for feeling more cheerful about forking over hard-earned dollars for a hardback book.

  25. I thought the first half of The Magicians was very enjoyable, but I started to lose interest once they graduated, and now I don’t even know where my copy of the book is. Oops.

  26. @Xeavn


    “The need”? I don’t see the “need” to do much except eat, sleep, and commit various other random acts of biology. And yet I somehow manage to do much more than that. You seem to belong to the school of “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything”. Well, sorry, did not go to that school. I don’t want to live in Nicety-Nice-McBland-Pleasantville world where all we do is say nice and pleasant and boring things that don’t fer goshsake’s hurt anyone’s feelings. What does it matter what I say anyway? I am a random internet nobody; no one should give a flying crap about my opinion.

    But where was I “blasting” the author himself? I do not know Mr. Grossman personally. I saw him on a con panel once and seemed like a nice enough fellow. I simply think he managed to create one of the most hideously unlikable characters I have encountered in years. And I don’t have to *like* my characters. But in this case… this case…. I simply despise Quentin with the passion of a thousand burning suns and find it impossible to not voice that opinion. I would definitely give the book away if I could but I did it on audible. (the narration was quite good actually) Now if someone could tell me that Alice comes back in the next book and flays Quentin alive I would *gladly* purchase it.