Adman's Reviews > The Magician King

The Magician King by Lev Grossman
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's review
Jul 08, 2012

liked it

** spoiler alert ** while i enjoyed this book, _the continuing adventures of disillusioned aesthete-wizards_ did not quite live up to the promise of its predecessor.

***SPOILERS FOR _the magicians_ follow***


first, let me state that the closing pages of _the magicians_ rubbed me the wrong way. after a lovely and distressing quest, i bought quentin's shellshock and his emotional burnout. this magical quest really cost its heroes something! what made absolutely no sense to me was that when his old pals shattered his mute reflections upon the dull, plate glass of his future he suddenly decided what he really needed was to get back to magic and indulgent adventuring. oh hello, huge unforeshadowed regression. this sudden dismissal of his own grief and willful forgetfulness of lessons learned just because someone said, "hey, aren't you bored? how about some more?" made no sense except in terms of preparing for a sequel.

_the magician king_ doesn't exactly pick up where this abrupt reset left off. chronologically it occurs much later, and psychologically the cast appears to regress even further than the closing teaser of _the magicians_.

if one came to the table fresh, not having read the first tale of fillory, they'd not detect much in the way of depth or gravity in these characters' lives. when referred to, the size and menace of their first quest has a postcard feel. quentin remembers alice obliquely and rarely, quite at odds with the intensity of their relationship and the way it ended. very little tribute is paid to penny by any of the current cast either. even though most of them didn't really like him this still rings false. penny's tragic mutilation and departure from the group after their victory ought yet to carve some scars across a few psyches, however little they liked him (much later in the book when any smart magician would be looking for penny they still do not think of him).

one might have hoped for more from grossman in the way of emotional landscape. book one promised real, occasionally unpleasant stakes and raw, bitter and beautiful emotional content. where did it all go?

quentin's biggest problem now is boredom (additionally, and oddly, he's an idiot - why would an academic genius not know when the middle ages occurred?). after sobering and growing up in book one, eliot has decided he preferred to be a lush. who knows the intellectual states of most other characters i came to love in book one, since here they appear to be personae non grata, fading in and out of relevance to hoist occasional props.

grossman prefers to pit his cast in an endless battle of urbane, disaffected wits. even if these folks have become spoiled royalty, i'd expect reflection from some quarter upon where they came from - maybe a member of the court could offer objective counsel to keep one of this story's feet in some real world? unfortunately the best candidate for that position dies shortly after the action gets going. the banter competition gets old, but discontinuity of characterization is more frustrating. eventually a new set of consequences and realizations develops, but i don't understand why grossman couldn't just carry the growth forward instead of setting it back almost to square one.

some of this surprising superficiality is offset by julia's story, although the staging of that story is a bit awkward and its grittiness sometimes feels a little too stridently gritty. mostly, though, the disposition of present and past action simply disturbs the momentum of both trajectories to no apparent stylistic purpose other than to enforce suspense. but still: julia's story is pretty engrossing.

one of my biggest questions upon finishing this polarized tale of two worlds is, how on earth do they not run into one another more? in book one the strengths of the story outweighed my short list of unanswered questions, but now it begins to grate.

in _the magicians_ one receives the impression that anyone who is not accepted into a magic academy is restored to a normal, non-magical life. in _the magician king_, one learns that this is far from the truth; in fact not only does the blue pill apparatus frequently fail, DIY magicians are often far more powerful than their classically trained counterparts. wouldn't the ivory tower have a stake in this unregulated underworld? more significantly, where is the faithfully invisible, inactive, perhaps impotent regulatory council of wizards?

once again, in _the magicians_, the prospect of interfering with fillory is initially met with skepticism by some of the protagonists. e.g., they'd get in big trouble with the powers that be for interfering with another world. that fear never comes to fruition. now here, unregulated and unchecked magicians nearly ruin the whole universe and still no one but some magical creatures bats an eyelash.

(a lesser unresolved thread from _the magicians_, but one that still pokes at the back of my brain - dean fogg knew about jane he either knew about fillory or had some questions/suspicions about the unregulated magical world...but to the best of my memory there has not been a confrontation or conversation about this.)

i keep waiting for these unresolved threads to weave into some magnificent gauntlets of dexterity, and perhaps they will in book three. i'm hedging my bets.

for all this, the story is actually quite entertaining. one must simply set aside some of ones expectations of, well, literary realism in this fantasy landscape. that loss is disappointing but once one expects less in terms of emotional resonance or historical integrity, the more one just has a lot of fun.

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