Lev Grossman's The Magician King: fantasy sequel, the banality of magic and the magic of banality

By Cory Doctorow

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

Published 6:01 am Tue, Aug 9, 2011

About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

29 Responses to “Lev Grossman's The Magician King: fantasy sequel, the banality of magic and the magic of banality”

  1. It’s been two years and I’m still not sure what I think of The Magicians. The first half of the book was engrossing; twee and self-aware, but on balance with wonderment. I made the mistake of giving a crap about the characters, something I’d learn to regret in the second half of the book. 

    After graduating from magic school the characters turned into asshats, d-bags and tramps: cartoon versions of NYC twenty-somethings. Maybe it was because I was an NYC twenty-something with asshat/d-bag friends, but I found I’d rather have stopped reading all together, rather than accompany them to that heavily-tread territory: the Lewis/Tolkien fantasy-land satire. It’s not that the old material is too sacrosanct for satire, it’s that it’s been done to death. The book’s conclusion was (no spoilers here) while not predictable, still certainly the most likely ending (too Hollywood even?). 

    I guess my problem is that it was two satires in one: first half being an attempt to out-do Harry Potter, the second a C.S. Lewis piss-take. It was an uneven experience and made even this jaded reader wonder why Grossman  hates his inner child so much. 

    • sandra.graves66 says:

      I totally agree with you. Felt the same way. Great review. Did you really have to use the word twee?

    • Tiferet says:

      My inner child comes from a rather different background than yours apparently; she didn’t feel that Grossman hates his inner child and neither do I, she just appreciated the fact that there are other people in the world whose inner children also recognise that Dumbledore is an egomaniac and Aslan treats people like toys.

      • I like drama and nuance in my escapism. I just don’t like escapism that makes a big drama out of nuance. :)

        Every person posting in this thread _knows_ that Dumbledore was a prig and that Aslan’s just Jesus in a tacky fur coat. That’s where other posters are coming from when they point out the lost opportunities and ham-fisted treatment of genre tropes. 

        That said, I bought the sequel and look forward to reading it as soon as I’m done slogging through Jordan’s WoT series. 

  2. Marc Thomas says:

    The second half of the Magicians so annoyed and disappointed me that I doubt I will ever pick up a book by Grossman again. The first half was more than passable, but the second half was a disaster. It was as if Grossman was unable to shake the snarky realism of the kind he is forced to review at Time (time and time again).

  3. j-rad says:

    Cory, you write amazing book reviews.  Every time I read one I end up putting the book on my wishlist.  Thanks!

  4. I didn’t like the ending (and by that I mean, quite literally, the last three pages, which struck me as the most blatant sequel bait) but I found the book’s first and second halves to flow really well into each other.  

    The first half really resonated with my memories of being a teenager and wanting to get out of my circumstances by going somewhere bigger or better.  In the protagonists case, this meant becoming a powerful magician.  The second half displayed the inevitable consequences of that desire fulfilled to its ultimate extent.  That power led to personal dissatisfaction, the fracturing of relationships, and even physical harm.  

    In other words, I’m looking forward to the sequel.  

  5. Emily says:

    I adored the first half of The Magicians and the second half filled me with rage when I thought of the hours of my life I’d never get back.

  6. Sarah Skwire says:

    Here’s what I said about The Magicians over at Librarything.com.

    “The blurbers on the back cover of this book compare it to a combination of Narnia, Oz, Harry Potter, and Brett Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero.  Seems fair to me.

    I think my problem with the book is that while I’m an enormous fan of the Narnia/Oz/Harry Potter stuff (allowing for their flaws, of course), I’ve never been able to see the appeal of work like Ellis’s. So, taking an intriguing fantasy structure (and it’s decidedly intriguing, and much more adult and complex than the structures it references) and just overlaying it with the kind of constantly intoxicated, emotionally dead, eternally disaffected and disconnected characters that fill Ellis’s work didn’t, to me, seem to be all that interesting.

    I wanted more from this book. I wanted the pieties of fantasy as written for children to be challenged intelligently, by characters who could see its moral flaws and offer some alternative. While the characters here seem poised to do that, it all collapses amid drink and a drive for meaningless power.

    In the end, this felt to me like it was more of a mockery than a critique or a challenge, or a move to a more “grown-up” kind of fantasy. Understand, please, that I am not critiquing the book for not being “uplifting” or “moral” or “sweet” or any of a number of other things. I like my fantasy plenty dark. I just like the darkness to have a point.

    That said, there is at least one section of the book here that’s as good as anything I can think of in fantasy. For the section of the book based near the South Pole where lead characters are at various times transformed into geese, or sent out naked into the cold to travel 500 miles however they can do it, you forget–as they do–that they are shallow, drunken, reprehensible people. You feel, instead, their delight in flight, in stretching their powers, in attempting the impossible, in grappling with a problem, and in learning to manage it. You feel Grossman’s delight in the work he’s doing here. And you get a look at the kind of book he could have written, but didn’t.”

    So yeah, what everyone else said about The Magicians, with an additional heapin’ helpin’ of “I probably won’t bother with the sequel.”

    • “I wanted more from this book. I wanted the pieties of fantasy as written for children to be challenged intelligently, by characters who could see its moral flaws and offer some alternative. While the characters here seem poised to do that, it all collapses amid drink and a drive for meaningless power. ”

      Exactly. Grossman intended for us to dislike the characters, that they were meant to be flawed, familiar and “reprehensible”. Our responses to these characters was not just anticipated, but in fact exactly what the author was “going for”. But I don’t think that excuses the material from being a missed opportunity. It doesn’t even excuse it from being, itself, an “existential exercise” in banality. No shoulders were shook that the likes of Gaiman, Ellis, Moore, Meiville (and hell, even Pratchett) didn’t already shake to pieces. 

      • Sarah Skwire says:

        An excellent point. The only people who could find the book startlingly original were those who hadn’t read much genre fiction to begin with.

        It’s like Dr. Johnson’s famous review: “Your manuscript is both good and original, but the parts that are good are not original and the parts that are original are not good”

  7. Jeremy Duncan says:

    I really enjoyed the first half of The Magicians, but I had to put it down shortly after the characters graduated. I just found them all so thoroughly dull and unlikable (esp. the protagonist) that I couldn’t stand being in their company a moment longer.

  8. Talia says:

    Well, I enjoyed the entirety of the book, and I read almost exclusively genre. Rampant originality has never mattered much to me as long as the writing’s enjoyable and basic premise is interesting, which are things I both found true. I can get how it wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes though.

    I didn’t realize there was a sequel in the works and I look forward to checking it out.

  9. Quiche de Resistance says:

    Grossman has a William Gibson-esque fascination with money that was a little distracting in The Magicians.  I still plowed through it, but it felt kind of unsatisfying at the end.  I will probably try to read The Magician King but I won’t buy it.

  10. wizardru says:

    Fascinating.  In the space of this post, I went from interested in a book, to not sure about a book and then finally to deciding I have no intention of reading a book.  Reading a story where Harry Potter grows up and becomes a drunken poser jerk and then reading a sequel to that?  Not for me, thanks.

    • Tiferet says:

      It’s a lot better book than some of the commenters here make it out to be.  Also, I’m not sure Harry could become any more of a jerk by discovering drink and drugs than he and Ron and Hermione became upon discovering sex in Book 6.

      The point of the debauched section was that once you’re an adult, and you have the kind of material power that you’d get at a school like Hogwarts, living in the real world is kind of a problem.  If you can’t fix all the things that are wrong that you have the power to fix, lest you give away the existence of your kind and start the Inquisition going again, it’s a bit of a depressing life–you can make everything great for yourself and your friends but you’re not connected to the struggles other people outside your world face.  What is there to do with all the power you could ever want if you can’t really use it to do anything worthwhile?

      I am anxious to see what the sequel will be like.

      • Antinous / Moderator says:

        I’m not sure Harry could become any more of a jerk by discovering drink and drugs than he and Ron and Hermione became upon discovering sex in Book 6.

        One word: Engorgio!

  11. selfsimilar says:

    Agree mostly with the comments above. I understand the point Grossman tries to make with unsympathetic characters, and I went along for the ride. The most jarring thing to me were the elements of drunken debauchery; mostly the volume of alcohol. I knew some lushes in college but these wizards put them to shame. That broke the spell of “realism” that Grossman was trying to cast.

    Still, I’ll give the sequel a chance, as the characters grew over the first novel, perhaps they’ll mellow as they age.

  12. Keith Abramson says:

    I’m about 3/4s through – slogging my way, just to finish it. I’m not particularly enjoying the ride, primarily because I find his writing technically lacking; from page one, I found myself mentally rewriting sentences with disturbing regularity. Grossman has a weird tendency to string together thoughts with extremely awkward cadence. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to somehow represent the stilted and jilted mental states of the characters; I just find it oddly disconcerting to read.
     
    Does anyone else feel this way, or am I insane? For what it’s worth, I just came off a string of Mieville books, so my bar may be set too high for mellifluousness.
     

  13. Rotwang says:

    I’ve been waiting for the second book – I liked the first one just fine.

  14. Megan Lehar says:

    After reading the Magicians, I was also unsure how I felt about it. All of the complaints I have are true of The Secret History, which is kind of similar to the second part of the book. But I loved that book and was lukewarm/kind of appalled about The Magicians. I guess I was mad that the only character I like had such a bad ending, then is pretty much forgotten by the other characters in the final page of the book. I just thought they were all huge dicks.

  15. BSD says:

    I really liked The Magician King. Except the excruciatingly unpleasant bit, the existence of which I accept and I appreciate, but reading which I did not enjoy one whit.

  16. David Wattenbarger says:

    I went to Amazon to pick up the Kindle version of _The Magicians_ only to find it is priced at $12.99 while the paper back is < $5…I'll wait on this one and not reward Penguin for anti-eReader bias.  But the books sound interesting!

  17. Kristy Olson says:

    Cory – you missed pointing out that the best part of The Magician King is Julia’s story. Quentin is cool and all, but Julia’s story is one of those for the rest of us, who have to work and struggle so much more just to achieve what gets handed over freely to someone else who doesn’t even truly appreciate the enormous gift they’ve been given. It’s brutal, but a type of story that very rarely gets told, particularly in a fairy tale world.

  18. flwombat says:

    I’m floored by how many people had hugely negative second-half experiences with _The Magicians_.

    I loved everything about it, the challenging and disturbing and awful parts just as much as the pure-joy discovery stuff. All the awful things felt to me like real life: people are wonderful and also terrible, selfishness abounds, great joy and hard slogs and giving up and pettiness and generous love and forgetting about the people left behind and… it all just struck me as right and true. Like the friends and family members I’ve known the longest, I cared about these characters both despite and because of their flaws, just as much as their virtues.

    I loved _The Magician King_ too; it’s not the same by any means but in a broad sense was fantastic in parts and disturbing in parts in a similar way. I don’t think it gives too much away to say that the topic of Quentin’s selfishness is addressed, and that it becomes part of a character arc over the two books.

    FWIW I’ve been reading boatloads of genre fiction for the last quarter-century and did not feel that anything in these two books was lazy or an overdone trope. It’s not all original but nor is it supposed to be — it’s partly commentary after all.

    For anyone on the fence about whether to read this, my vote is go for it.

  19. LairBob says:

    It is pretty amazing / depressing how often comment threads about books — not just here, but almost everywhere — end up being arguments for reading _less_, not _more_.

Leave a Reply