The Magician King by Lev Grossman

In my review of The Magicians I offered this opinion as to what its author was up to:

What Lev Grossman attempts to do in The Magicians is both bring this shared love of childhood fantasy adventures into a more adult-like world but also ask the question: “What if something like Narnia really existed?”  These two concepts make up the bulk of the book but they do not always work together.

The just released sequel, The Magician King, picks up where this left off and ads the question: “What if you found the fantasy land of your dreams but eventually got bored and restless? “What if it wasn’t enough?”

Quentin and his friends are now the kings and queens of Fillory, but the days and nights of royal luxury are starting to pall. After a morning hunt takes a sinister turn, Quentin and his old friend Julia charter a magical sailing ship and set out on an errand to the wild outer reaches of their kingdom. Their pleasure cruise becomes an adventure when the two are unceremoniously dumped back into the last place Quentin ever wants to see: his parent’s house in Chesterton, Massachusetts. And only the black, twisted magic that Julia learned on the streets can save them.

Magician King is still a dark, adult modern version of the young adult or childhood fantasy adventure and it still contemplates the question what if magic, and the fantasy land of your childhood, was real. But then it takes this background and foundation and forces the characters to wrestle with the complexity and difficulty of adulthood that remain even if magic exists. What does it mean to be a hero? What does it mean to be willing to really give of yourself to something or someone larger than your own selfish interests. Does the happy ending still result?

Along the way Grossman also explores what the architecture or building blocks of magic might look like and how human interaction with that – past, present and future – might work or not work.

More after the jump …

As with the first book, there are really two seperate threads to the story. In this case, the two threads follow Quentin and his quest for adventure and psychological/spiritual growth and Julia’s path from Brakebill’s reject to master of magic – albeit a darker more black market version.

The Quentin thread follows closely on the style of the first book: equal parts serious and silly; hipster irony and casual vulgarity with classic fantasy aspects; genre and philosophical. I think this element – while still disjointed at times – works better because there is a narrative pull unifying it: Quentin wants to be in Fillory but is willing to risk that for his quest – to get to the bottom of certain relationships including the underlying connection of magic to earth and Fillory.

As the story develops, in classic quest fashion, Quentin begins to understand a lot more about himself and the impact of his actions.  But there are times where the persona wears thin. At times he seems just a self-interested jerk. At times he seems more than that – more aware more mature. But the flippancy, vulgarity and seeming innate selfishness ebb and flow making it hard to get a read on Quentin.

In contrast, the alternating chapters focused on Julia seem only loosely connected to epic fantasy as a genre. This is more magical realism or realistic fiction that happens to contain a fantastical element. It is the gritty story of someone who sacrifices everything at her disposal to gain the one thing she believes she wants only to find that this sacrifice has not only fundamentally changed her but has set off a series of unintended consequences – personal, physical, magical, spiritual, etc.

The two threads eventually intertwine, and this connection plays a role in the stories climax and conclusion, but they do not always sit easily together.  Julia’s story in fact has a great deal more power and drive than does Quentin’s. It has a cleanness and a hardness that makes it powerful and even gripping. Julia is a story obviously going somewhere and the tension builds and grows. Quentin’s ebs and flows, twists and turns, starts and stops. It just doesn’t have the oomph.

Despite all of this, The Magician King is an entertaining and enjoyable story. Even as you note the disjointed nature and wonder about this or that plot point and too easy resolution, or get a little lost as the genres and styles mix and meld, you want to keep reading. You want to keep reading both to enjoy the language and the story – to find out what happens but also how Grossman chooses to work it all out.

It could be that some of this is the nature of bringing the style and structure of fantasy into an adult world.  Adults are often not afforded the luxury of clean lines and choices; of heroism and friendship unsullied by conflict and complexity. Part of what Gossman is trying to do, I think, is say things just are not that easy – life is complex and messy and full of gray even as we seek simplicity and stability and moral clarity.

I am sure fans of the first book are even now devouring this sequel if they haven’t already finished.  But I would encourage anyone interested in the style, structure or themes of fantasy to check out the series. Even if you don’t think he quite pulls it off I think he will keep you entertained and intrigued about the process; make you think about your expectations and conceptions of genre and story. Of course, anyone who just enjoys an interesting story will get a kick out of it too.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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