Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Things pick up in this sequel to Grossman's 2009 The Magicians more or less where we would expect them to.  We find our once Earthbound Fillorian royalty rather well adjusted, fatter and even lazier, and though it may be hard to believe, they are just as bored with being a master magician in Fillory as they were on Earth.  
Quentin, the main character of both The Magicians and The Magician King is still somewhat plagued by his inability to be happy.  It's not that the life of luxury isn't for him, rather he feels there should be something more to his existence.  Oddly, he declines the first adventure that presents itself to him organically in favor or one of his own making.  His own quest eventually leads him to find the seven golden keys that wind up the world.  
In many regards, I found The Magician King to be stronger than it's predecessor.  The purpose was stated much soon even if it isn't until much later that reasons why are given.  Quentin has also grown up… kinda.  Much of the emo angsty stuff that caused me to roll my eyes in the first book is gone, and with it, I can admit, many of the engaging and fun relationship drama that characters became wrapped up in.  The only real character development of interest comes from Julia, the book's co-star.
After events in Fillory get underway the book's structure alternates between current events and filling in the gaps of Julia's life while the other magicians Kings and Queen were at Brakebills.  We learn how she got her education, the seedy magical underworld, it's members, organization and purpose.  I have to be honest and say I grew to dread these sections.  They were always very interesting and helped establish Julia to the same extent the others were established in the previous book.  However, these sections also had nothing to do with the story at hand until the closing pages.  As we had already seen the structured magical education one can receive in the first book I thought the idea of showing the polar opposite was great.  Furthermore, I think there is more room to develop what Grossman has already laid down.  I do wish he would have explored and developed this idea elsewhere.  As in another book or series.
Grossman is still funny though it comes at a cost.  There is the free flowing dialogue that sounds like my friends and I talking as we do at a bar only the subject matter isn't about the Braves and beer rather a magical world and dragons.  The books speech felt real and organic to me.  Much of the prose is also jammed full of pop culture references and good and bad jokes alike (and more fantasy fiction literary allusions than even the author is probably aware of).  The prose is also humorous but to me it felt a bit more force and unnatural; like a comic working too hard for a joke that was never that funny to begin with.  
Grossman is relentless in his mocking praise of fantasy fiction.  My favorite comment came at the expense--or is it homage?--of the Eru Ilúvatar, the creator of all things in Tolkien's world.  While he twist and contorts fantasy troupes he has in each of his books embraced one that makes me want to roll my eyes or throw up my lunch.  After certain events in The Magicians when Quentin's hair turns white I almost put the book down.  I'll give nothing away as to what fantasy troupe Grossman welcomes in The Magician King but beware the comments (should there be any).  I will say not only does this particular fantasy troupe need to die, but I was shocked at the jokes being made only seconds after it happened.  I know it's only a book and Julia isn't the most likable person to begin with but damn… 
The ending will be bittersweet for many, if not an outright point of contention.  It put me into a rage.  Days after having finished the book I can appreciate the disturbing logicality of the conclusion and applaud the author's efforts.  His characters are just as compelling and unlikable as before.  And the knockoff Narnia elements can't get any higher.  The Magicians and The Magician King are still my favorite two books to hate.  I can't wait for the next one.  


Carl V. Anderson said...

I just read and reviewed The Magician and won't be going on with the series. It was way too full of apathy and I got so tired of Quentin's inability to be happy. I realize on one hand that it is interesting story telling as not every story needs to be "happy ever after", but I just got sick of what felt like whining and "woe is me" thinking throughout the book. I praise the author for writing the kind of book he wanted to write, but it just isn't the kind of book I want to read.

Chad Hull said...

I can completely understand where you're coming from Carl. I can think of a handful of books that aren't what I want to read. Sorry you had to trek through this only to find out it wasn't for you.

Carl V. Anderson said...

Thanks, but with that gorgeous cover I would have always wondered, and it was a pretty quick read.