Review: The Magician King, Lev Grossman

I will be honest and say that when Viking contacted me to offer me an early copy of The Magician King (thanks, Viking!) (FTC, take note), and I said yes, that was about the extent of the effort I was willing to put forth to acquire the sequel to The Magicians. Had I not received it in the post, I would most likely have seen The Magician King on the shelf at the library a few months from now, and checked it out then. I liked The Magicians, but I did not want to marry The Magicians (a maneuver that in any case would defy legality, even in a tolerantish state like New York). I never warmed to Quentin, the protagonist, and I thought the plot was unevenly distributed throughout the book.

Having said that, I must have been in just the right mood for The Magician King, because I went through it like a hot knife through butter. I kept glancing up for subway stops, glancing back down at the book, and being shocked at how far into it I was after what felt like a very short reading time. Perhaps it was because the references to Narnia were rarer (I still maintain that Quentin’s version of the world can not have the Narnia books as well as the fictional Fillory ones), but I found this book to be something closer than its predecessor to what I would imagine grown-up Narnia to be. It didn’t have quite the safe-and-home feeling that Narnia gives me, but it was like — it felt more viably like someone else’s tribute to Narnia than The Magicians did. I don’t know how to explain what I’m trying to say here so I’m going to move on to plot summary, which will of necessity include some spoilers for The Magicians.

Our protagonist Quentin Coldwater, as ennui-ridden as ever, is a king of Fillory, ruling alongside Eliot and Janet, with Julia around there too, being all weird. He gets a bug in his ear to go off on a quest, and almost at once — to his intense chagrin — he is thrown back into the real world. Meanwhile, in alternating chapter flashbacks, we find out what’s been going on with Julia in the years that Quentin spent ennui-ing all over Brakebills. If you were upset that we didn’t find out what happened with Julia (I was), fear no more, you will find out now.

I spent the bulk of The Magician King feeling slightly grumbly. I have a bias in favor of retaining my first impressions. I was all, “Oh, you may be moving along at a brisk pace, Grossman sequel, but it is not because I love you! Your two narratives are poorly integrated! Your protagonist is still a jerk! I still remember all the stuff that pissed me off about The Magicians!” But as I hit about the two-thirds mark, these complaints began to be answered one by one. The Magician King turned into a coherent whole and what is more, it made a coherent whole out of The Magicians! Which I feel is just what a sequel ought to do. (Only I wanted some movement on the Alice front, and it was not forthcoming.)

In short, The Magicians had a better story for my Narnia/Harry Potter-loving little heart, but The Magician King is a better piece of storytelling. Quentin — not to spoil things for you, but y’all, Quentin kinda grows up. I might just go out and buy a paperback copy of The Magicians someday now. The things I liked about it are still true, and the things I didn’t like about it are handled (almost all of them) by The Magician King.

And now, the obligatory Oscar Wilde nitpick about something that matters absolutely zero and can be easily explained away but irritated me nonetheless because I don’t think the explanations that would be offered in its defense would actually be true:

Brakebills was for Marquis of Queensberry types. Murs was more your stone-cold street-fighting man.

NO. NO to this. NO.

I comprehend perfectly the point of this passage. The Queensberry Rules govern fair play in boxing and suggest, in general, the ideals of fighting like a gentleman. The phrasing of this sentence links Brakebills to the landed gentry while also evoking the cultural metonym of the Queensberry Rules. If it weren’t so dismayingly wrong it would be a tidy bit of shorthand. It’s just — it’s just — God, it’s just wrong. The Marquess of Queensberry was as stone-cold as any character in The Magician King, and significantly more mentally unstable (yes! and I say that having not forgotten all the moderately-to-very mentally unstable characters in this book). I can scarcely imagine anybody who fought less like a gentleman than the Marquess of Queensberry. The Marquess of Queensberry fought like a street urchin. An antisemitic homophobic street urchin. The Marquess of Queensberry wasn’t a Queensberry Rules type. Is all I’m saying. He fought dirty. I’m just saying.

OH BY THE WAY. It turns out? That the Marquess of Queensberry is related by marriage to Osama bin Laden. It’s true. His great-great-grandson had a bin Laden nephew as an in-law (the former head, as it happens, of the bin Laden Corporation). As you may imagine, this news fills my heart with inexpressible joy. From now on when I am having a kankkarankka paiva, I will remember this information and be of good cheer.

Again, The Magician King was sent to me for review by Viking. It comes out the day after tomorrow, the ninth of August.

Review: The Magicians, Lev Grossman

Whoa, how did I not review this yet?  I thought I had – but apparently I only thought about it, A LOT, and then forgot to do it because I was reading through the Amelia Peabody books.  (Still fun!)

The Magicians is about a boy called Quentin Coldwater who is obsessed with a series of books about a fictional land, Fillory.  One day, he interviews for and gets into a school of magic, Brakebills, and he spends the next lots of years learning magic, and practicing magic, and eventually (is this spoilers?  I feel like no, because you see it coming from the beginning) it turns out that Fillory was real all along, and he and his friends go to Fillory.

I loved the Fillory thing.  Narnia obviously informed the idea of the Fillory books – the child protagonists, the magic alternate world, the talking animals, etc. – but very rarely did it feel like Grossman was borrowing too much from C.S. Lewis.  (The exception is that he swiped the entire idea of the Wood Between the Worlds with hardly any changes, which kind of bugged me.)  Mainly, though, this device works very well.  The idea of the book is sort of a growing-up of children’s fantasy.  Quentin’s obsession with Fillory makes him expect one thing out of magic, and he finds it works quite differently.  He grows into adulthood and cannot quite work out what to do with his life, and finally he gets to Fillory and finds it absolutely not what he was imagining.  It’s all pretty dark and difficult and messy, like adulthood is – the expectations kids have, and the difficult, compromise-y reality.

(Spoilers here.)  What worked particularly nicely for me, in suggesting the transition from childhood magic to the world of adulthood, is the episode where Quentin decides to play a tiny prank on one of his teachers.  The minor distraction he creates summons a Beast from another world, and a student who tries to save the situation gets killed.  BAM.  It was effective.

On the down side, I did find the book unbearably self-conscious at times, especially on the one or two occasions that the students of Brakebills made reference to Hogwarts and Middle Earth.  It was jarring.  Fillory was fictional Narnia, so the world of the book was obviously not our world; to make reference to a real-world book took me right out of the moment.  If there is Fillory instead of Narnia, Tolkien and Harry Potter can’t exist.  Does that make sense?

Another problem I had was that, although the book was a good exploration of the adulthood thing I mentioned before, it wasn’t tightly plotted.  Extraneous events and stories were easily distinguishable from plot point events and stories because Grossman was telegraphing his punches like mad.  Plus, the trip to Fillory didn’t happen until ages into the book, and it was so brief there wasn’t enough time to build up the necessary suspense.  (Though I did like the final revelation about Martin.)

I spoke a while ago about Neil Gaiman’s story “The Problem of Susan” and the problems I had with it.  Grossman’s story is as creepily effective as Gaiman’s at growing up the Narnia books, without being as disrespectful to Lewis’s writing.  On the other hand, given that it was novel-length rather than just a short story, The Magicians could have benefited by having a good editor.  It was uneven altogether – it dragged in bits, and raced in bits, and while some things worked spectacularly, others spectacularly did not (the niffin thing?  not so much).

I like for my life to be simple, and I have fretted about how many stars to give this book for a while now.  I decided on three as an average, though as I say, in parts it was a five and in parts a one or two.  What would you prefer – an all-bad book you can write off forever, or a book like this that’s inconsistent?

Other reviews: A Novel Menagerie, She Is Too Fond of Books, bookshelves of doom, OF Blog of the Fallen, Reading the Leaves, Books and Movies, Beyond Books, The Wertzone, The Mad Hatter’s Bookshelf and Book Review, Darque Reviews, Wordsmithonia, Strategist’s Personal Library, Stephanie’s Written Word, and tell me if I missed yours!