Tag Archives: The Magician King

The Magician King — Lev Grossman

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In Fillory, the magical land of children’s literature and the kingdom of Lev Grossman’s spell-casting slackers in The Magician King, things are starting to go off the rails. Clock-trees are waving their branches wildly, the Seeing Hare is playing hard to get and the Master of the Hunt drops dead in the middle of a soft green grassy circle, heavy with enchantments, in the woods.

The Magician King picks up some time after Grossman’s first fantasy, The Magicians, leaves off. Quentin Coldwater is one of the four Kings and Queens of Fillory as The Magician King begins and he thinks he’s landed in a cushy spot. Although, in typical Quentin fashion, he’s beginning to get just a tiny bit bored with his perfect life. His fellow royals, Eliot and Janet from Brakebills, the magicians college on the Hudson where the three learned their stuff, and Julia, an old high school friend who didn’t get into Brakebills and acquired her magic where she could find it, contemplate the disturbing signs of magical unraveling and agree to a Quest.

The fantasy, a grown-up pastiche of J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis and some very Grimm tales, sets sail on a charmed ship in search of answers and adventure. Our hero—still no dashing Lancelot—discovers he is looking for a golden key. Eventually there will be seven golden keys. But not before Quentin and Julia reach the Outer Island, meet a child who draws them scribbled passports they later find useful, locate and try a key with dizzying, disastrous results, continue their quest back in the Earth world, revisit Brakebills to no real benefit, steal some cars, hack an ATM, mess with disenchantments at a magnificent palazzo in Venice and learn about the dissolution of magic and the heroics it will take to save it.

Quentin is less of a jerk in this second half of what is really one long coming-of-age story split into two books. He exhibits some heartening maturity and altruism, along with his burning obsession to find the key to meaning in his own life. His evolution and the rich imaginative world Grossman builds around him make this a much more satisfying read than the first book. There is still an alarming tendency to imbibe hangover-inducing amounts of alcohol as daily fuel and unmagical humans—AKA family—are sloughed off with minimal concern and consequence. Events follow the predictable story template: just when things are staring to look better, they get worse. A lot worse.

The storyline for Julia weaves in and out in alternate chapters and we learn how she acquired her magic—none of it is remotely pretty. Death and defeat are as ugly as they come in this fairytale. The scenes are salted with arcane bits of erudition that lend them authenticity and show Grossman did his homework, a lot of really strong research. But the book seems slightly long and the adventures pale as they double back on themselves in loops of endless action and reaction that start to blur together. This might be a book to savor slowly, over several days, rather than power through in one.

I liked The Magician King far more than its prequel. Grossman has built a convincing world, if a graceless and sour one. His hero grows up and sacrifices himself to save some of the others. Quentin is left sadder, wiser and more hopeful by his quest. But, despite his admirable gestures, and all the powerful magic that slips through, and from, the hands of the Fillory royals and their companions, there isn’t much there there in the end. The magicians are an intelligent and egocentric lot and remain true to form. They are alienated from their roots, their surroundings and each other—it’s still all about them. The magical and mundane realms of Grossman’s books are bleakly existential. They offer a downbeat escape into fantasy for a reader whose sunny life is in need of a few contrasting shadows. The travails of this Quest are not so much an antidote to the gloom, angst and despair of the barren landscape we already inhabit.        

The Magician King: A Novel    Lev Grossman  |  Viking   2011

The Magicians — Lev Grossman

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It seemed like a good idea to read The Magicians before tackling Lev Grossman’s new sequel, The Magician King. The first book was hailed as a grown-up fusion of The Narnia Chronicles and Harry Potter, with a magical college hidden in plain view in upstate New York on the Hudson and various portals and spellbinding journeys ferrying people to and from the real world. I think the critics left out the heavy influence of Sartre that trumped magic at every point in the book.

The Magicians was a good read for about the first two-thirds of the fantasy and a depressing descent into drunkenness, betrayal, mindless bravado and delusion for the last third. Severed limbs, exploded good and bad guys, miserable weather, horrible death and disfigurement seem to be what magic will produce when mixed with reality. The protagonist was a loser who sort of found himself in Magician U. but reverted to unattractive loser status as soon as he was cut loose. I hate a hero’s journey that’s just aimless bar-hopping, partner-swapping and “Hey, let’s do this because we’re all so fekking bored!” So I’m not too sure I will spend hours tomorrow slogging through the adventures in book two.

Quentin Coldwater is a really really bright high school student who can’t get the girl, reads his childhood fantasy series obsessively and wishes he could live in Lev Grossman’s version of Narnia, a place called Fillory. One day, he gets his wish. But first he wanders through a portal near the toxic Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn and winds up casting spells in Hogwarts-on-Hudson. The college is called Brakebills; it is extremely old and part of a post-secondary international consortium of magical prep colleges. Students are sorted into cliques, wear uniforms, memorize endless magical formulae and occasionally die.

Our hero meets a new girl-of-his-dreams, befriends an odd assortment of fellow magicians-in-training, does his semester abroad in Antarctica after an unusual migratory flight, and becomes a very competent and self-absorbed spell-caster. Upon graduation he embraces a pointless existence as a subsidized lush in Manhattan, wrecks his relationship with his admirable live-in magician girlfriend and sees rescue from the utter ennui of his life in the accidental chance to visit the land of his childhood fantasy books.

In Fillory, things go from extremely bad to a whole lot worse. It’s Narnia on steroids. No Aslan, lots of dismemberment, little charm. Lev Grossman is a fluent writer. He cooks up some plot surprises and he delivers solid characters who are believable, if not especially likable. By the end, that’s what got me counting pages. I just couldn’t empathize with a bunch of brilliant, over-privileged, highly-trained, immature fuck-ups. Quentin had me for a while but he lost me in a boozy Tribeca loft and I was more irritated than sad when the wrong people ended up on the wrong end of dark magic in the dungeon. I need my literary realism masquerading as fantasy to have some redemptive quality—life outside of books is grim enough.

Maybe I’ll read the sequel next or maybe I’ll return it on time to the library instead. New books have a shorter check-out time than books that have been around for a while and there is undoubtedly a long line of anxious readers waiting for this one. If I don’t read it now, The Magician King will be yesterday’s news by the time I get my hands on it again. If I do read it now, I’m in for many more hours of fantastical dysfunction. Scarlett O’Hara had the only possible line here, “I’ll think about it tomorrow.”   

The Magicians: A Novel   Lev Grossman | Viking 2009