mark monday's Reviews > The Magician King

The Magician King by Lev Grossman
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Feb 05, 12

bookshelves: fantastickal, secret-histories

The Continuing Adventures of a Smug Magical Asshole, as written by An Asshole. and now featuring The New Adventures of a Completely Self-Absorbed Bitch.

i suppose i understand the acclaim that has been heaped on Grossman. he is playing with tropes as his characters play with magic. he has a puckish sensibility that makes reading his series a tart and spiky experience. his tone is breezily casual and entirely unsentimental. and since Snark is the New Law of the New Millenium, the snark that is delivered in spades throughout his novels probably lets many readers off the hook of reading genre fiction... everything is delivered neatly wrapped up within a knowing, eye-rolling, jaded wrapping paper. this gift can be unwrapped at sophisticated dinner parties and the reader won't have to suffer any kind of embarrassment over reading and talking about Fantasy.

but i had to do a lot of eye-rolling of my own. it's not as if The Magician King is just about a shallow little prick who views everything - and i mean Everything - around him with disdain. i probably would have less of an issue with this book if it were simply about an unsympathetic protagonist. but nope, the author himself makes it clear that he is officially on the side of cynical, snarky assholery. it is all in the writing itself, and not just in the voice of our tedious hero. i can start with the ending, where banality has been substituted for actual meaning and resonance. but the problem is endemic to the entire narrative. people and places are described in the same shallow, smirky, insulting manner, as if the book was actually written by our tedious hero. a bit of the jokiness scores; most of it just falls flat, with a thud. like the irritating, oh-so-clever commentary of some overly-intellectual prick at a party, going on and on about how pedestrian tv is, how terrible music is these days, how pop culture is for idiots, how he's been there, done that, and there were so many tourists and it was all so predictable and banal and now he's rolling his eyes and arching his eyebrows and i just want to smack the bullshit right out of him. in short, this novel lacks SINCERITY.

okay, enough of the complaints. there is still a lot to enjoy. first off, new co-protagonist The Completely Self-Absorbed Bitch is actually pretty interesting and her parallel flashback adventures are often enthralling. the way that the parallel narratives of our heroine's past and our hero's present eventually dovetail into one narrative is clever and quite elegantly structured. an island battle is genuinely thrilling. the novel's major set-piece, where a bunch of brilliant but mentally ill magicians conjure up an actual god is pretty awesome - and very upsetting. the story of young Benedict is also quite well-done... there is genuine tragedy and sadness there, in a way that really stands out from the rest of the narrative. and extra points for portraying rape without even the slightest bit of offensive sexiness.

i was happy to see my favorite characters from the prior novel, Penny and that novel's superb villain Martin Chatwin, both return in a couple excellent cameos. and many of the ideas are wonderful - in particular the Neitherlands, dragons, Venice, the return of the old gods, magical halfway houses, a magical ship, magicians who have somehow transitioned into higher beings, the seven golden keys, a sloth, the Customs Agent and especially her daughter... and i'm probably missing a few equally choice nuggets. The Magician King is deeply flawed and its juvenile tone may be instantly dismissable; it is also practically brimming over with a host of smart, fun, and intriguing moments. much like a creative, outsider-type teenager - full of unearned cynicism and irritating snarkiness, but also full of vibrant energy, a host of ideas, and a fresh, sometimes even brilliant way of looking at things.

so, when all is said and done, i'd actually recommend this book as an interesting and often enjoyable experience. but i'd have to give a big disclaimer before recommending it - a disclaimer delivered with a little snark and a lot of eye-rolling.
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Comments (showing 1-34 of 34) (34 new)

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message 1: by Maciek (new)

Maciek I disliked the first one intensely, mostly because of the whining and unlikable protagonist.


mark monday i liked and disliked the first one, in equal measures. this is more of the same.


message 3: by Maciek (new)

Maciek I guess I won't be reading it, then. Though the perspective of writing a trashy review is so tempting!


mark monday i tried to make my review half thumbs-up, half thumbs-down. a perfect 3-star novel!


message 5: by Maciek (new)

Maciek And you did! Very good review.


mark monday thanks!


message 7: by B0nnie (new)

B0nnie you're spot on when it comes to a certain smugness that often creeps into contemporary fiction - it can ruin an otherwise great read - & you cannot decide if you ought to throw the book out the window, throw the book out the window but tell passers-by that they must read it or maybe just throw yourself out the window while still reading it


mark monday i'm happy to say that i don't experience this a lot, because i'm not a big reader of contemporary fiction. it's in the mix for me, but it is not predominate.

but i definitely noticed what you are describing when reading Zone One. an excellent book - but one filled to the brim with a certain kind of intellectual smugness.


Francine I had been contemplating reading the first book in this series but read some other reviews that gave me pause. I may still give it a shot one day. I think you're a much kinder reviewer than I am (yesterday, for instance, someone read one of my reviews and questioned why I continued to read things I obviously disliked). You tend to still see the good things in some works (e.g. Zone One's lyrical beauty).


message 10: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday it's true, i do tend to be a glass-half-full kinda guy. i usually find something to enjoy & appreciate in most books. as well as to criticize. just like with actual people!

honestly Francine, i don't think you will care for this one. particularly given your feelings about Zone One. the two books are completely different in style from each other (and subject matter as well, of course)... but they both share that intellectual smugness and pretension that you found deadly in Zone One.


Francine Deadly like zombies? ;-)

In all seriousness, I did appreciate the inherent beauty of Whitehead's writing; I just had to be in the right frame of mind (I wouldn't have appreciated your review otherwise). I guess I was just in the mood for some blood-pumping, visceral, gratuitous chomping.


message 12: by Dan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dan Schwent My favorite part of this is Grossman's magic system, specifically how the magicians are like hackers.


message 13: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday i had a lot of favorite parts here and there, but right now my favorite part to recall is the sight of Julia in battle mode, taller & bigger & silvery & black-eyed & kicking ass.


message 14: by Dan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dan Schwent mark wrote: "i had a lot of favorite parts here and there, but right now my favorite part to recall is the sight of Julia in battle mode, taller & bigger & silvery & black-eyed & kicking ass."

I'm hoping there will be more Julia in the third book. I could see Quentin joining the Order as a way to get back to Fillory.


 Danielle The Book Huntress (Angels Weep For Goodreads) I had similar feelings about the first book, so your review resonates with me, mark. I'll catch this one in paperback, or if the audiobook comes to the library. Thanks!


message 16: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday my pleasure, LD!


message 17: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday Dan wrote: "I'm hoping there will be more Julia in the third book. I could see Quentin joining the Order as a way to get back to Fillory."

i hope that happens! that would mean more of my favorite character Penny.


message 18: by Mark (new)

Mark Love the review and its title

The Continuing Adventures of a Smug Magical Asshole

this just drew me in.


message 19: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday thanks Mark! got to keep it punchy, you know.


message 20: by Matt (new)

Matt "in short, this novel lacks SINCERITY."

That word. I don't think it means what you think it means. I think you might be looking for words like gravitas, maturity, solemnity, and so forth. But it's very possible to be both flippant and honest. I think you need to consider the possibility that all this snark and cynacism is Grossman's sincere view of the world.


message 21: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday that's an excellent and very interesting point, Matt. i'm not sure i agree, but your last sentence is definitely something for me to consider.


Taylor Leigh Completely agree with you. I had to put the book down a couple of times because Quentin was so self centered, I agree that I liked Julias back story but I felt like she liked to throw herself pity parties about how awful and hard her life was.


message 23: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday it's sort of funny how they are obnoxious opposites. one incredibly shallow, the other pretentiously 'deep'. they both suffer (Quentin losing Alice, Julia's terrible assault) but in the end, it feels like Julia's personality opens up a lot, while Quentin's only a little.


message 24: by Joel (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joel i LIKE this book's narrative voice. probably because i'm a snarky, sarcastic jerk who is above it all.


message 25: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday oh, Joel. JOEL! i highly doubt you are as full of self-pitying bullshit as Quentin.

or are you saying you are more like Julia? now that is something i can get behind.


message 26: by Joel (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joel well, i love julia's character. quentin is a whiny ass. but i just meant i like the way the narration goes off into snarky commentary/pop culture references.


message 27: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday ok i can see that. i'll give you that one.


message 28: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike You have nailed part of what bugs me, but I think it's intentional. What would happen if you gave a self absorbed Generation Yer or, even worse, a Millenial magical powers? They basically have everything but want MOAR, so let's give them essentially unlimited power and see what happens, see if they manage to grow from the experience.


message 29: by mark (last edited Jun 17, 2013 11:49AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday definitely intentional, i agree. but i think the intentionality itself is flawed because it is hard for me to imagine anyone acting like Quentin does over and over and over again. he's a tedious straw man to me rather than an interesting character. and so his thought processes and his actions become likewise uninteresting because they are all so predictable. he's so static he's two-dimensional. Julia, Penny, even Martin all feel more real and certainly more dynamic to me.


message 30: by Sher (new)

Sher May i want to give this review 5 stars instead. i enjoyed the magicians a lot more than the magician king, possibly because i don't really like Julia, but probably because the over satisfied cynicism got a little too much for me after two books. nevertheless still really enjoyed grossman's masterful sophistry at detachment and lazy denouncement and i think this review is a perfect summation about everything this book was about. especially the part about the teenager.


message 31: by Becki (new)

Becki Graves I haven't finished the first book yet. actually I left it at work and was trying to find it online to finish reading when I discovered that it was a series. This was not welcome news as I find most of your negative description is spot on with the first book as well. But your review is so fair and well versed that I may take a crack at the second book. Though I do think I will take a mich deserved break after I finish the first one.
Mainly I just felt that this entire conversation was singularly the most intelligent conversation I've ever come across on the internet and needed to be apart of it.
Please pardon any grammical or spelling errors. I am on my phone.


message 32: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday thank you Becki! I hope you do take a look at this one. it is problematic but there is so much to enjoy. I'm looking forward (with some reservations) to the third book, The Magician's Land.


message 33: by Joel (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joel what if this book really was about the adventures of a magical asshole? like... literally?

what would its powers be?


message 34: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday I think I will research that this weekend and get back to you!


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