Lev Grossman's 2009 novel The Magicians was a remarkable fantasy novel, a subversive young-wizard novel that showed us bright magical prodigies who had all the quirks and flaws of real-world prodigies. It combined sarcastic, arch attitudinizing with the wish-fulfillment, fairylands, and well, magic of fantasy novels into a kind of anti-Harry-Potter story that gutted the comfortable worlds of high fantasy without mercy.
The Magician King is Grossman's sequel to The Magicians, and while it is every bit as delightful and smart as the first one, it's a very different kind of book. It opens with Quentin and three of his magician friends from Magicians ruling over Fillory, a magical kingdom that they quest for in the first novel. Ruling over an idyllic, magic land is pretty dull, as it turns out -- mostly pomp and ceremony, with no chance for importing Enlightenment reforms despite Quentin's best hopes. Quentin yearns for a quest -- having achieved his lifelong goal, he finds it wanting, and he can't decide if the quest that won Fillory was even his, or whether he was just a minor character in someone else's story.
Quentin gets his chance -- a contrived quest to the furthest island on the maps, which owes back taxes. Not that Fillory actually uses gold, but they do try to stockpile it for appearance's sake. From this quest follows a series of adventures and misadventures that are somewhere between Juster's Phantom Tollbooth and Narnia, as told by Philip Roth. And this isn't just Quentin's tale -- he is accompanied by his co-queen Julia, his childhood crush, who wasn't accepted into magic school and went mad as a consequence. Now, broken and bitter, Julia's story puts the magic of The Magicians into a larger context, showing us that the orderly, neat magic of Brakebills College and its gentlemanly wizards are just one edge of a much larger, weirder tapestry that spirals off to the origin of the universe and the great powers that lurk there.
Flipping back and forth between Quentin and Julia's story, The Magician King is at once an existential exercise that angrily shakes escapism by its shoulders and demands that life have a purpose, and a story about extraordinary deeds, heroism, magic and love -- all the stuff that makes escapism go. Grossman isn't condemning escapism, but he's certainly holding it to account and asking it for more. It's a fantastic trick that makes this into a book that entertains and disturbs at the same time.
The Magician King
In 2012, Kim Stanley Robinson published 2312, imagining how the world and its neighbors might look in 300 years, loosely coupled with the seminal Red Mars books, a futuristically pastoral novel about the way that technology can celebrate the glories of nature; in 2015, Robinson followed it up with Aurora, the best book I read that year, which used 2312’s futures to demolish the idea that we can treat space colonization (and other muscular technological projects) as Plan B for climate change — a belief that is very comforting to those who don’t or can’t imagine transforming capitalism into a political system that doesn’t demolish the planet. Now, with New York 2140, Robinson starts to connect the dots between these different futures with a bold, exhilarating story of life in a permanent climate crisis, where most people come together in adversity, but where a small rump of greedy, powerful people get in their way.
Last December, I published my review of Andrew “bunnie” Huang’s astoundingly great book The Hardware Hacker: Adventures in Making and Breaking Hardware — without realizing that the book’s release had been delayed because the published decided to do some very fancy and cool stuff with the printing process.
It’s been fifteen years since the first edition of educator Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes was published; now in its third edition — updated with current, timely material about social media and other fast-moving subjects, as well as reflections from girls who were raised on the techniques in the previous editions — the book is a compassionate, aware, and intensely practical guide to navigating the toxic, gendered lives of young girls in a diverse, politicized world.
You know the drill. You go to the dentist and they ask you how often you floss. You lie through your teeth and say, “every day!” (Bonus points if you have some cilantro or chives stuck in your gums from lunch). You don’t want to keep up the charade any longer, but rubbing that tiny strand […]
The Raspberry Pi Foundation has done outstanding work packing a fully capable desktop computer into a package the size of a deck cards—especially one that only costs $35. But if you already have a working laptop, why should you care? Oh, how much you have to learn. Besides operating well as a compact digital media hub, […]
Custom coffee vessels are the perfect piece of office flair, but it’s just a matter of time before your VOTE FOR PEDRO mug will start to lose its relevant wit. Why not have a new one every day, with whatever silly nonsense you want sticking off the sides? You can save big on your novelty […]