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What We're Reading: The Magician King

As shameless lovers of the Harry Potter series, you would never catch us talking smack about the Boy Who Lived. But deeply loyal though we are to Harry, it was Hermione, the brazen kick-ass, brainy witch, who really truly wooed us.

With that in mind, we give you one guess as to why we're now swooning over Lev Grossman's The Magician King, the sequel to his bestselling fantasy novel, The Magicians. If you guessed that the book features a wickedly intelligent, sorcery savvy anti-heroine, you'd be right! But don't crack the cover on this sizzling, dark novel expecting ever-earnest Hermione. Julia is gothic and a little disturbed. But what she lacks in pep, she makes up for in passion and courage.

We last saw our heroes…

The Magicians — think The Chronicles of Narnia meets Harry Potter, with a side of whiskey — follows Quentin, a high school senior whose misanthropic teenage angst could put Holden Caulfield's to shame. Brilliant, sour and weirdly obsessed with a children's fantasy book series, it would take an act of magic to turn things around for the adolescent. Conveniently, he's recruited by Breakbills Academy, a secret school of magic that introduces him to power and a gaggle of interesting misfits. Forsaking his ordinary life and his unrequited love interest, Julia, Quentin eventually journeys to the kingdom of Fillory, the enchanted and hitherto-assumed fictional realm where his favorite childhood books took place. Meanwhile, Julia discovers magic, and worms her way into the mystical world by becoming an unauthorized witch.

The story picks up...

Back in Fillory with his magician pals, including an increasingly strange Julia, Quentin is suffering from a severe case of first-world problems. He sets off in search of a legendary key that winds up the world, with Julia in tow. Together, they unlock a portal and find themselves tumbling into the suburbs of Massachusetts. So begins their new adventure: finding a way back to Fillory.

Woven into this journey is Julia's back story, a tale so engrossing it'll have you wondering, "Quentin who?" Beneath Julia's tunnel vision lies a brave girl who knows exactly what she wants and is willing to break her own heart and spirit to achieve it. She's eerily strong in the face of forces beyond her control, and she's funny, too – it's impossible not to root for her as she silently mocks Quentin's intellectual capacities, or when she wields "the power of the hand job" to get her way.

Julia is no dinky chick sidekick. Where Quentin bumbles and whines his way into dubious heroism, she pushes herself and overcomes crushing pain to become a refreshingly complex female character. In fact, you might even say Quentin is her sidekick. Kudos to Grossman for giving this leading lady the limelight she deserves.


The Magician King

Author: Lev Grossman, TIME book critic and author of The Magicians and Codex.

Viking, August 9, $26.95

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