David Katzman's Reviews > The Magician King

The Magician King by Lev Grossman
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Jun 12, 12

Recommended for: fans of urban fantasy/adult fantasy (not YA)
Read from May 31 to June 11, 2012 — I own a copy, read count: 1

Not a masterpiece like the first book but a solid outing in many ways. And a huge disappointment in one way.

First to the good. The Magician King was nearly as engrossing as The Magicians. Not as hard to put down, but I always looked forward to picking it back up. I did thoroughly enjoy reading it. Grossman does a nice job conjuring a magic system and a believable main character. Quentin is awkward and sometimes irritating and doesn’t act quite as smart as he’s supposed to be, but he feels like a real person. I didn’t love him as a character, but I wanted to know what was going to happen to him next. Hoping he’d learn something.

That being said, a bit of the thrill of the new environment has worn off. I felt that the plot line wandered this time, despite it being intentionally plotted that way (as a quest).* The characters start in the magical world of Fillory, then get shunted back to Earth, then back to Fillory again. An author must walk a fine line when the main character doesn’t understand why he is being batted about like a magic shuttlecock even though the author does. And that line is the story’s forward momentum. I think that line is a bit too thin here. As is my metaphor. The story also alternates chapter by chapter between the forward moving story and Quentin’s friend Julia’s back story. It being a back story does not help with the momentum issue either. And I found Julia harder to “see” than Quentin. Physically, I could see her beautiful, goth street magician appearance, but I couldn’t see her as a real being.

I also found the ending of The Magican King to be awkward much like Quentin himself. It felt too posed, too dry, too insincere. The characters became chess pieces. It wasn’t so much a glorious climax as a modest shrug.

Lastly, there was one particular item that made me curl my lip with disdain at The Magician King. Some of you may have read my first novel, Death by Zamboni , which is partly a satire of commercialism and television. In that book, I present each chapter as sponsored by different corporations, and I invent ridiculous taglines for each sponsor. It is, of course, mockery of corporate sponsorship of art by taking it to the extreme. Corporations sponsor art in order to cast a “brand halo” upon themselves so that you mentally associate them with something creative or cool. It’s an abstracted action that attempts to cause you to think of the brand favorably by situating a home in your subconscious that makes you want to buy this product and choose it over a competitor. Because it has been subconsciously ensconced in your psyche connected to some other work that you have good feelings about. Well, I can’t be sure, obviously, but I think there is product placement for Coca-Cola in The Magician King. Either that, or (and I don’t know which is worse) Lev Grossman has such fondness for Coca-Cola that he is oblivious to the fact that he is uncritically placing it in the book in a positive light. This is something I have strong feelings about.

Using brands in a book is tricky. I think we all know (just from the cultural zeitgeist around it) that American Psycho is packed with brands as a way to satirize 80s decadent culture and to represent the serial-killer main character as the embodiment of the heartless corporate/capitalist system within which he lived. I don’t need to read it to agree with the metaphor. Ellis intentionally chose to make the main character obsessed with certain brands. Choosing to include brands is in many ways a political choice. Because it can be avoided if you are careful. In the case of The Magican King, Grossman could have had his character yearn for a cola. Or a soda. Or a black coffee. Or anything. But he chose to have Quentin thrill to have a Coke when he comes back from Fillory to Earth. And then later when Quentin goes back to Fillory, Grossman reiterates from a close third person perspective, “At least he’d gotten to drink a Coke.” Two uncritical references to Coke that would make a brand manager smile; I smell product placement, and it stinks.**

Will I read the third book in the series? Yes, I will. So call this an awkward product endorsement.

*I’m not going to reiterate the basic premise of this novel, but if you want a brief primer, take a read of my review of The Magicians .

**oh, and oddly, I found a typo in this book and two in the previous one. This one was on page 351 "canot" instead of "cannot."
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Jordan Like the review, liked the book, agree with much of your criticisms of the plot and certainly the ending. If it is a middle book (ie: 2 of 3) then I can accept some of how this book seems to fall short as a potential setup for book 3. BUT, I think you are reading too much into the "product placement". Using an actual brand makes it seem more real, no one who drinks soda drinks "cola" people are either Coke people or Pepsi people, Coke (since you mention zeitgeist) is sort of a piece of "Americana", and lastly Grossman is presumably expecting this book to be published internationally and Coke is widely recognized and much more easily translated (or not translated) than explaining cola in a different language. It is an instantly recognized product, and I think that's probably enough reason to use it.


message 2: by Fox (new) - rated it 4 stars

Fox I agree with you about the awkwardness of the style.. at times it felt like it worked - in particular near the third act - but at times it was just jarring. Mostly it jarred me when they were on the Muntjac. I liked the idea of the ending, though I feel that it could have been written a bit better. I liked the final portion of Julia's story as well (wow, Reynard, wow) but the earlier bits were a bit awkward for me. I think that Julia lacked the strong voice that Grossman developed for Quentin and Eliot. He seems to have a bit more trouble with female characters in general. I liked Julia a bit better when we just saw how psychotic being denied Brakebills made her, but oh well.


David Katzman Fox - i agree with your comments! The only thing you forgot is to like my review. LOL!

Jordan - for some reason, I never got an email alert that you commented on my review. Thanks for commenting. I'm just going to have to disagree with you. If he was planning on translation - anything can be translated properly to suit a regional culture. That's the job of the translator. Your comment would imply that if an author does write "soda" somehow that will be difficult to translate. When you create a character, every single choice they make somehow represents something about them. But there was absolutely no reason to associate Coke with Quentin. This choice was absolutely disposable. He could have also said "a beer" and that would've been equally valid. As I recall, it was the only brand mentioned in the entire book, which makes it stick out like a sore thumb. So if there is nothing meaningful represented about Quentin by having him desire a Coke, then there was nothing gained by choosing it except either Grossman is oblivious to product placement or he got paid for it. I don't like either option.


message 4: by Fox (new) - rated it 4 stars

Fox I found an odd typo in my copy... not the "canot" that you found, but there was one sentence near the last third of the book that lacked a space. It was an odd sort of typo, but oh well.

I've a feeling that Alice might make a reappearance in the next book, what about you?


David Katzman An interesting guess. You might be right.


message 6: by Fox (new) - rated it 4 stars

Fox I'm guessing it because of how often she was mentioned in this book, as well as their brief trip to the Underworld. The emphasis placed on where the powers of magic come from, and how it can manifest.. i.e. what happened to Julia in the end... it leads me to think that we may learn a lot more about the niffin.

I also still wonder where the fountain in Brakebills leads.


message 7: by Caroline (last edited Nov 14, 2013 06:48AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Caroline You're right about the Coke thing! I wasn't paying close enough attention, but yeah, it should have been "cola" or "soda." I rated this book more highly, but I completely understand your criticisms; it is very different from the first book in so many ways, and the voyage makes for a wandering plot line in general. It has the same weirdness (at times) as the first book does, though, and I loved that. Let's hope the third book wraps up the trilogy in a satisfying way!

ETA: I swear I see AT LEAST one typo per book I read these days. It's discouraging.


David Katzman Hah! It was difficult to live up to the first book. I agree with you that there is a lot to appreciate in the weirdness. I'm kind of amazed by what you said in the other thread that this one got higher ratings.


message 9: by Caroline (last edited Nov 14, 2013 07:13AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Caroline David wrote: "I'm kind of amazed by what you said in the other thread that this one got higher ratings."

I thought about it for a while, and I think it may be because the people reading the second book are the ones who liked the first enough to read the second. Ratings for the first book are skewed by people who read it thinking it's going to be this feel-good-give-me-warm-fuzzies Harry Potter clone, and then get pissed that it isn't. I feel pretty strongly that the marketing that called The Magicians "Harry Potter for adults" hurt the book more than helped it.


David Katzman Ah, that makes sense. Good deduction. So the haters of the first book dropped off before reading the second.


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