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Book Review: The Magician King, by Lev Grossman

The taking-the-piss-out-of-Harry-Potter hero of The Magicians goes on a quest to save NarniaFillory.


The Magician King

Viking, 2011, 400 pages



Return to Fillory in the riveting sequel to The New York Times best-seller and literary phenomenon of 2009: The Magicians.

The Magicians was praised as a triumph by readers and critics of both mainstream and fantasy literature. Now Grossman takes us back to Fillory, where the Brakebills graduates have fled the sorrows of the mundane world, only to face terrifying new challenges.

Quentin and his friends are now the kings and queens of Fillory, but the days and nights of royal luxury are starting to pall. After a morning hunt takes a sinister turn, Quentin and his old friend Julia charter a magical sailing ship and set out on an errand to the wild outer reaches of their kingdom. Their pleasure cruise becomes an adventure when the two are unceremoniously dumped back into the last place Quentin ever wants to see: his parent's house in Chesterton, Massachusetts. And only the black, twisted magic that Julia learned on the streets can save them.

The Magician King is a grand voyage into the dark, glittering heart of magic, an epic quest for the Harry Potter generation. It also introduces a powerful new voice, that of Julia, whose angry genius is thrilling. Once again Grossman proves that he is the modern heir to C.S. Lewis and at the cutting edge of literary fantasy.




I did not like The Magicians. I thought it was a cynical mockery of the material Lev Grossman claims to love. The protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is an overprivileged dickbag who doesn't get any better by the end of the book. The only decent and heroic people in the first book were of course the ones who got fucked over the hardest.

So, why did I read The Magician King? Well, a lot of people kept saying "It's so good, it's better than the first book!" And I really wanted to like The Magicians. Grossman does write well, his worldbuilding is pretty good (albeit derivative, albeit deliberately so), and there was such potential in the premise of taking Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia in earnest and using them as the basis of an adult fantasy. So, I gave the sequel a shot.

I am happy to report that The Magician King is better than its predecessor. But it still doesn't entirely redeem Grossman, in my eyes. It's a good story, but not a great one. It still takes a while to get underway, though not as long as the first book, and it still too often feels more like cynical mockery than homage. But the mockery was less pronounced this time, Quentin isn't quite such a cynical dickbag, and there were some genuinely cool ideas.

And there was Julia. Oh, Julia.

So, Quentin and his friends from Brakebills, the American Hogwarts of book one, are now kings and queens of Narnia I mean Fillory. They hold court, sail around on pretty ships, and go on hunts.

In the first chapter of The Magician King, Quentin meets the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog. Or at least, an obvious facsimile. Okay, that was kind of cute.

Mostly out of boredom, he takes a cruise to some island on the outskirts of Fillory. This leads him to the real story. The Magicians mostly just introduced the world and set the characters up for further adventures. The Magician King, faithfully imitating the material it imitates, ups the ante by having Quentin discover that Fillory is in danger (of course). He has go on a real honest-to-gods Quest which will take him back to Earth, in which he meets gods, dragons, and more of his Brakebills classmates.

The climax turns out to be pretty darn tense (and bloody), and of appropriately epic scale. If the first book was borrowing mostly from J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis, this book adds J.R.R. Tolkien to the homage (and at least that part of it did feel like a homage); the ending in particular made it obvious that this was a true quest story in the tradition of The Hobbit. No, we haven't gotten to the LotR proper yet; that's probably the next book.

So, this book mostly did the things I liked in the first book better, and did the things I didn't like in the first book not quite as badly. Therefore, it's readable and if there is a third book (and the end of The Magician King is open-ended enough to make another sequel highly probable), I will probably read it.

But Grossman still does a few things that annoy me. As I said, there are still a lot of moments where I felt like the earnestness slipped over the line into cynicism. Quentin is still kind of a dick, though he does grow up a little.

And then there is Julia. Oh, Julia.

See, Julia is the girl who didn't pass the Brakebills entrance exam in The Magicians. She gets a taste of magic, and then it's snatched away from her. When Quentin sees her again, she's like a junkie jonesing for a fix, begging him to hook her up. And he turns his back on her, not without some sympathy, but not really doing anything for her either.

In The Magician King, while Quentin is faffing about on his quest, we get filled in on Julia's backstory. She didn't just give up when she was rejected by Brakebills. She went looking for magic. And she found it. If you've ever wondered what happens to the wizarding kids in Harry Potter who don't go to Hogwarts, this book answers that, kind of. Julia learns magic the hard and dirty way, and she's one wicked witch. ("Wicked" in the "badass" sense, not the "evil" sense.) While Quentin and his friends were drinking and screwing their way through wizard school, Julia was earning her magic the hard way.

If Lev Grossman weren't kind of a tool, this book would be The Magician Queen. But Julia is, alas, only a secondary character, and like most of Grossman's female characters, it seems, she's alternately slut-shamed and ice queened. She does achieve a state of grace in the end, but along the way she's pretty seriously broken.

I did like Poppy, the perky Muggle dragonologist, but she, alas, is mostly along for the romantic hook-up at the end.

I liked this book, which is more than I was expecting. But Lev Grossman is still just taking the piss out of better books.

Poll #1883656 The Magician King

Have you read The Magician King?

Yes, and I liked it.
6(40.0%)
Yes, and I didn't like it.
1(6.7%)
No, but now I want to.
3(20.0%)
No, and I don't want to.
5(33.3%)

Have you read The Magicians?

Yes, and I liked it.
5(33.3%)
Yes, and I didn't like it.
5(33.3%)
No.
5(33.3%)

This review is...

Fair and balanced.
4(14.8%)
Funny.
4(14.8%)
Informative and interesting.
6(22.2%)
Entertaining and witty.
4(14.8%)
Mean-spirited and unfair.
2(7.4%)
Stupid.
1(3.7%)
Doesn't tell me enough about the book.
2(7.4%)
Too long.
1(3.7%)
Too short.
2(7.4%)
Written by a cynical tool who mocks his betters.
1(3.7%)




Verdict: The Magician King makes up for some of the flaws in The Magicians, and is a very readable contemporary fantasy for Harry Potter fans and Harry Potter haters alike. It's a flawed book as well, but I pretty much enjoyed it and it did not make me feel like throwing it against a wall the way its predecessor did. So you're on probation, Lev Grossman. Maybe let some of your female characters not [Spoiler (click to open)]get raped by gods or Dark Phoenixed next time?

Also by Lev Grossman: My review of The Magicians.




My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, fantasy, lev grossman, reviews
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