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.