THE MAGICIAN KING, by Lev Grossman. Viking, 400 pp., $26.95.
Lev Grossman is a nerd. He wants you to believe that it's cool to read fantasy fiction. He draws on the tropes and conceits of the genre, from "The Chronicles of Narnia" to Harry Potter, melding them into a modern psychological novel to create something entirely new.
"The Magicians" (2009) was about a young boy named Quentin Coldwater who enrolls at Brakebills College, a secret school for magicians. With his friends, Quentin travels to Fillory, a Narnia-like kingdom they all had known about through a series of children's books. "The Magician King" picks up two years later. Quentin has joined his friends to become a quartet of kings and queens, presiding over their lands, people and magical creatures, when a sudden misfortune occurs that sets the plot in motion.
A spirit of disenchantment pervades this fantasy. The kings and queens of Fillory are polymaths capable of incorporating dozens of foreign languages into their spells. They possess the secrets of magic and live in a storybook forest with talking sloths and seeing hares. They have been through a series of adventures that would sober any soul (Quentin's hair has gone snow white), and yet, they remain petty, selfish and profane.
Quentin is no Harry Potter. The other humans in Fillory are not the Pevensie children. This isn't a book for kids. Something sadder and more sinister has entered this fantasy: the modern world.