Monday, September 12, 2011

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians was one of my favorite books of 2009. It told the story of Quentin Coldwater, a very smart but disaffected and socially awkward young man who’s spent much of his life obsessing over children’s fantasy novels in an attempt to escape the disappointments of the real world. As someone who’s always preferred slaying imaginary monsters in a party of adventurers to making small talk in a party of actual people, I found Quentin’s character very familiar (though not always comfortably so). In obvious allusion to the two titans of children’s fantasy, Quentin discovers and trains at a secret school for wizards and then stumbles into the magical land of Fillory, where children from Earth can be kings and heroes over a bunch of mythical creatures and talking animals.

To some degree, this is all wish fulfillment for the author and reader: it’s Harry Potter and Narnia smooshed together with swearing, drugs, and sex! At the same time, it’s wish fulfillment for Quentin: he’s found and mastered the magic he’d always dreamed of. However, what really makes the book sing is Quentin’s slow realization that magic alone cannot alleviate the emptiness he feels. Fantastic adventures, whether one reads them or lives them, may distract one from depression or angst, but they will not remove the root cause. Somehow, the novel managed to be a thrilling magical adventure that made the reader question the value of thrilling magical adventures.

The new sequel, The Magician King, contains just as much wonder and excitement as its predecessor. Much of the book takes place in Fillory and tells a story of suitably epic scope. The characters, both old and new, grow and develop in compelling ways. Of particular interest is Julia, a minor character from the first book who steps into a major role in the sequel. Denied entrance to Quentin’s secret school of wizardry, Julia had to find her own path to magical knowledge and her story expands Grossman’s magical universe in intriguing ways (though the price Julia pays for her power will be distressing to many readers).

Some critics were put off by Quentin’s character in the first book, finding him self-centered, indecisive, and whiny. These qualities were both believable and thematically appropriate, but not entirely pleasant to read. In the second book, Quentin has grown up a bit and embraced his role as a hero in a fantastic world. He stills struggles to understand exactly what this means, but he does so with a measure of maturity.

When The Magicians was published, Grossman made it clear that he intended it to be a stand-alone novel. But, the author claims, he found himself unable to put the characters down and it now appears that Grossman will write a trilogy. There’s been no official word on when and if a third book is coming, but there are worse things than having a book to look forward to.


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