Phoebe's Reviews > The Magician King

The Magician King by Lev Grossman
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's review
Aug 07, 11

bookshelves: fantasy, literary, young-adult, loved-it
Read from July 21 to 31, 2011

If you're a fan of young adult literature, you've probably seen Sady Doyle's In Praise of Joanne Rowling's Hermione Granger series. Lovingly detailed, this feminist critique cut Harry Potter down to size a little. In Doyle's reimagining, he's nothing more than a privileged jock—though certainly even in our own universe charges of privilege could be leveled against him. Harry is the chosen one, special as much for reasons of birth as effort, while hardworking Hermione toils away to earn her rather narrower slice of the pie.

It seems that Lev Grossman is all-too-aware of the pitfalls of writing about a male, white, chosen hero. And why shouldn't he be? Quentin Coldwater, hero to 2009's New York Time's bestselling The Magicians is certainly male, white, and special. He arrives on the scene of magical academy Brakebills in a show of spectacular and unusual magic. Unlike most students, his gifts can't be easily classified. And, though it's not his efforts that help him reach Fillory, a Narnia-like land in another universe, he shares a special connection with this country—a country where he eventually becomes king.

But unlike Harry, Quentin is truly a young adult—emphasis on the adult. Because he's meandering toward his twenties over the course of the novel rather than through his teens, he's lost a little bit of Harry's heroic, intrinsic appeal. Quentin is harder, more aware of the tensions that exist between his rich fantasy life and the slightly less fantastic (though undeniably magical) world around him. He's mourning the magic that was lost to him as a teen. And this renders him quite insufferable. In fact, that's the biggest criticism I've encountered of The Magicians--that Quentin is unlikeable, privileged, whiny. Why should he be so special, readers seem to ask, that I should have to spend time with him?

Grossman neatly answers this question in two ways in The Magician King, next month's highly anticipated sequel to The Magicians. The first way is the simpler: he lets Quentin grow. If Quentin of The Magicians was a heartbroken high school boy who has begun to fear that magic does not exist, then Quentin of The Magician King is one who has accepted that it does, and now must begin to carve out a meaningful life of his own in spite of this. There's still a lot of introspection in this volume as Quentin travels across the oceans of Fillory, between the outer islands, and all around the coastal areas of Earth. But Quentin's grown in self-awareness. Though some of his romantic choices are a bit eye roll-worthy, they're easily understood within the context of Quentin's internal life. And, having faced loss, he's kinder now, too. It's hard to hate someone who is so good with children.

The language during Quentin's portion of the novel is captivating, nearly hypnotic. Rich setting is abundantly described—Fillory is still beautiful, and Grossman manages to weave allusion so seamlessly into his text that you're never quite sure if he's trying to create something original or to simply conjure images from the collective unconscious. That might sound like a slight, but it's not meant to be; this is a book for genre lovers, and it's perfectly evocative of all those books you read over and over again as a kid until the spines cracked and the glue dried and the pages fell out. There's an adult sensibility to his approach, but not a cynical one. It's as if Grossman is trying to keep his tongue firmly in cheek, but can't because he's smiling too hard—I suspect he loves Fillory just as much as Quentin does.

(And just as much as I do. I must confess that in reading both The Magician King and its predecessor, I had a distinct feeling that I was reading a book written just for me. I understand why Quentin might seem unpalatable to many readers—I understand how his problems are the problems of the privileged, the blessed, the bored. Like Quentin, I was a bright, imaginative kid whose dreams nudged her increasingly toward lands that should have been out of her reach—not only nonexistent fantasy lands, but academia, too. In a way, I would have been happy forever there, but it's intrinsically a transient space. And you can't go back to the world of the lower middle class after living in the Ivory Tower and not see it through changed eyes—you can try to be happy in your desk job, but you won't. What's left for you? Making your own worlds, your own adventures. But what does that even mean? Quentin is happier in Fillory; I'm happier working from home and writing books. But are we happy? Can we ever be? Does our unhappiness arise out of our situations, or our natures?

But I digress, severely.)

The other way that Grossman tackles the problem of Quentin's fundamental privilege is by shifting the focus through half of the book to someone who has not been so lucky—to Julia, the Hermione of this universe, a hard working hedge witch who was denied access to Brakebills. Her storyline parallels Quentin's life through most of the first book—depression and unhappiness grow within her like a dark pearl after she fails her entrance exams. But she refuses to tolerate not being chosen. She works. Eventually a world of magical flophouses and three-ringed binders full of spells open to her. The references here are perfect--of course there would be magical chatrooms and computer BBSes—and of course these lands would be filled with characters much like Penny of the first novel. Punk, scruffy, and terribly earnest.

If Quentin had everything handed to him—if he's a little bit of a Harry—then Julia's story is one of sacrifice and pain. She labors. And Grossman is keen enough to reward her for that. Within The Magician King is a nearly self-contained novel about a magician queen who earns her title. It's wholly satisfying, and a nice counterpoint to Quentin's perpetual lack of fulfillment.

(Speaking of, the novel ends perhaps predictably on an open-ended note. It seems we've yet to be promised a third volume. This upsets me. This should be—no, needs to be—a trilogy. I understand that Quentin is a fundamentally unhappy sort, that he won't ever attain nirvana. But I want resolution, if not for my own life, then for Quentin's.)

There's a lot here—in fact, my biggest problem with The Magician King was that there is sometimes too much. The journey twists and turns and then turns again. The result is breathless and exhausting. I'd be loath to suggest Grossman tame his sprawling story, but I do wish he'd let himself luxuriate in it. A bit more time spent in any of these lands (Fillory, Venice, Connecticut) would have been fine; it's a rare thing when a fantasy novel could be almost double its length and not feel bloated. This one could. But really, I loved the journey—the characters, the setting, the details, the themes. And so I'd be remiss if I did anything but whole-heartedly recommend it.

A review copy of this volume was generously provided by the publisher for review purposes.
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Reading Progress

07/21/2011 page 27
7.0% "Loving this so far." 2 comments
07/22/2011 page 42
11.0% "If I had a paper version, I'd be folding so many pages down. You rock, Lev Grossman."
07/23/2011 page 55
15.0% "Is the girl warrior Alanna, or Arya Stark, or even Sheik? This is what I love about Grossman--the perfect blend of allusion and celebration. He loves these things even as he's referencing them; they're not so much a specific call out as a way of celebrating beloved tropes."
07/24/2011 page 68
18.0% "I can't wait to learn more about Julia. Love how so immediately vital and memorable the characters still feel, despite the fact that it's been over a year since I read the first."
07/28/2011 page 164
44.0% "I had a dream about Brakebills last night. Damn you, Lev Grossman."

Comments (showing 1-11)

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message 11: by N (new) - rated it 5 stars

N Gah, I'm so jealous! I can't wait for it to come out...

message 10: by Rachel (new)

Rachel Hartman Mmmmm. BRAIIINNNZZZ...

Sarah Harian I'm wrapped up in an anxious stupor waiting for this freaking book, and your review did not help AT ALL. ;)

Phoebe Sarah wrote: "I'm wrapped up in an anxious stupor waiting for this freaking book, and your review did not help AT ALL. ;)"

Oh man, I can't wait until more people have read it. I really want to talk to people about how it changes Quentin's character arc and aaaaaah, have to wait. ^_^

Sarah Harian Phoebe wrote: Oh man, I can't wait until more people have read it. I really want to ta..."

I'll definitely hit you up when I'm finished!

KBev I completely agree with you about the story lines. I haven't read The Magician King - just bought it this afternoon & can't wait to finish it! - but I figure it's the same as The Magician. I wish so much that he would have taken a little more time in Fillory and the battles and such. It would be two pages and then over. And I'd have to look back and read again what I missed! I.E. He killed a bumblebee - wait, there was a bumblebee? Haha. But, I still loved and it and like you wouldn't want him to tame his story in the slightest bit.

Molly G I discovered Doyle's "Praise" after reading (and reviewing) "Magician King" - and MK was my first thought in response to "In Praise"! If Grossman hadn't written MK first, I would have thought it was a deliberate response. (I do think he was addressing the same issues, without needing further prompting than their existence in the genre.) The thematic link is perfect. Thank you for writing about it so well!

Sarah Harian Finished today. While I loved Quentin's arc in this one, Julia's chapters were what really made this book. Her character was so beautifully detailed and tragic. And HOLY SHIT, the last 50 pages... I want to make a music box out of her and open it every time I need character inspiration.

Rachael Sherwood I would love to hear your thoughts on SPOILERS FOR THE WHOLE BOOK (view spoiler) Otherwise, I agree with you, I loved the book.

Phoebe Rachael wrote: "I would love to hear your thoughts on SPOILERS FOR THE WHOLE BOOK [spoilers removed] Otherwise, I agree with you, I loved the book."

(view spoiler)

message 1: by Shanna (new)

Shanna Thanks for the link to that article, it was great.

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