The Magician King – Lev Grossman
[Viking Adult; 2011]
by Daniel Roberts
An ill-advised sequel has ruined the legacy of many a wonderful story. In the film business, the cause is usually greed (‘Hey,’ offers up some executive, ‘Cars made good money. Fuck it, let’s make another one!’) but in the publishing world, the decision likely rests on the “wisdom of crowds” concept (holler, James Surowiecki). In other words: if a story was liked by readers, and praised by critics, and there’s an opening to continue it, then why not write another?
The Magician King, Lev Grossman’s sequel to his inventive, exciting novel The Magicians, lacks the je ne sais quoi of its predecessor (actually, we can certainly begin to enumerate the ‘quoi’ of The Magicians—it included: heart in a protagonist that at first look didn’t have much, fantasy that never felt childish, and a romance that was anything but predictable). The existence of this sequel—it turns out it will be a trilogy, in fact—does not ruin the memory of the original, but certainly dims it a bit.
The Magician King picks up right where The Magicians left off: Quentin, Eliot, Janet and Julia are kings and queens in the magical land of Fillory, which they discovered after graduating from Brakebills College, a sort of hipper Hogwarts. Those readers that found Fillory boring, and were therefore not as excited by the final third of The Magicians, will not love The Magician King.
This time around, much of the space is given to Julia, who had to teach herself magic after she failed the Brakebills entrance test. Life in the margins of the magical world has left her troubled and mysterious—at least to Quentin, who had a thing for Julia in the first book before he got to Brakebills and met Alice (now out of the picture), and at this point has a thing for her once again.
Julia’s years of solitude and brooding misery, while Quentin was off at the magical equivalent of Brown (or maybe Wesleyan?), are deemed intriguing enough to make up over a third of the chapters. Grossman deserves real credit for how smoothly Julia’s misadventures line up with the timing of Quentin’s experiences in The Magicians — the unfolding of her growth into a magician, on her own, lines up perfectly with everything that we already saw. For example, when Julia runs into Quentin in a graveyard, we recall the moment when it happened in The Magicians, but now we can view it knowing where both characters have been—it’s an “aha” moment similar to the feeling you might get at the end of every scene in Memento.
The only problem: her adventures aren’t that interesting. She lounges around her parents’ house with plans of college, gets some acceptances, rips them up. She leaves home, floats around from couch to couch, hangs with what you might call hippies, polishes up her magical skills (she’s a natural). Finally, toward the end of the book, her adventures culminate in a disastrous botched plan that leaves the reader truly wowed for the first time in the story, making the previous Julia chapters worthwhile but still not much fun.
And make no mistake—neither Julia, nor our hero Quentin, are any fun this time around. Quentin, who has always been something of a sad sack introvert (though that’s what makes him lovable), isn’t quite comfortable in his kingly role and continues to be a downer. As for Julia, Quentin spends a great deal of time thinking about how to coax her out of the shell she quietly inhabits, but she never quite makes it.
Meanwhile, in the book’s present tense, Quentin and Julia quickly find themselves transported, accidentally, back to—gasp!—Massachusetts, where they grew up. It’s the pits, for them and the reader. It takes them a third of the book just to make it back to Fillory, where they can begin the book’s real adventure: a quest involving seven keys that, if all found, will save Fillory.
Where many of the inventions in The Magicians felt like Grossman took a Harry Potter concept but leapt away from it to create something newer and more exciting, many of the plot points in The Magician King lack that excitement, and feel unfortunately staid. The quest of the seven keys feels particularly obvious—even the characters seem to acknowledge that it feels clichéd (“It couldn’t be that simple, it just couldn’t,” is Quentin’s reaction upon learning that seven keys will save the day and he already happens to have six of them). Lest we forget, the entire Harry Potter series ended with a quest to find seven “horcruxes.” This time it feels like Grossman is echoing the plotlines of other fantasy series without adding his own twist that takes them to a new level.
Unsurprisingly, a formulaic plot often leads to formulaic writing. Early on, when Quentin and his friends witness a sudden death and find themselves in what they agree is a strange area of the forest, Quentin’s thought process is described thusly: “Some story, some quest, started here, and he wanted to go on it. He wanted the story to be about him… This was the real thing.” We don’t need it spelled out for us.
Grossman is a very funny writer, and in The Magicians the setting of Brakebills gave him a perfect venue for flexing that funny bone, by describing perfectly true-to-life awkward social scenarios or conflicts. But, though there is occasionally some smart humor in The Magician King (“Supposedly the Thames dragon wrote most of Pink Floyd’s stuff. At least after Syd Barrett left,” is a good one that rings of the Chuck Klosterman mindset), too often there are strange asides or one-liners that fall flat or will leave you groaning.
When Grossman writes that Quentin’s nickname for Janet, who serves as delegate to foreign neighbors, is “Fillory Clinton,” the gag is jarring and even dubious. It’s an awkward intrusion of our world into theirs. Furthermore, it just doesn’t seem like Quentin would call her that.
There are other strange attempts at comedy throughout, but they happen in the voice of the characters. In one of Julia’s chapters—told in third-person narration, but in the mindset of Julia (an example of “free indirect style”)—we learn that Julia wasn’t quite depressed enough to be held in an insane asylum for longer than a few weeks. Then, this: “So that was another exclusive institution she couldn’t get into. Badum-ching. Thanks very much, you’ve been a great audience. I’ll be here all week, all month, all year, until further notice, indefinitely.” This suddenly hammy, yuk-yuk tone comes off stilted, like the text is trying too hard. Here’s the same thing happening in a Quentin chapter, after he decides to fly to the top of a tower: “Nothing made you feel more like a fucking sorcerer than aviating under your own powers. Yipee ky-yay, motherfuckers.”
The book has its moments, of course. There are perhaps no scenes of the vivid, permanently memorable type that The Magicians had in spades, like when the students became birds and flew to Antarctica, or when Quentin and Alice made love as foxes. However, a chapter in which Quentin and Julia visit the Underworld to apologize to a friend who died needlessly is fresh, dark and emotionally complex. And a clever subplot in Julia’s chapters has her solving complicated riddles posted in a chat room called Free Trader Beowulf (so named after a quote on the box for Traveller, an old RPG game; Grossman knows his geekdom). Finally, the novel’s ending (at least for Quentin) is a shocking twist indeed that opens the third book up for great, Fillory-free possibilities.
Less picky readers that loved The Magicians and are likely to love any new adventure involving the same characters will be pleased. For those that aren’t pleased, the disappointing plot and occasionally silly clichés in language will by no means change any minds about Lev Grossman. He’s a terrific writer that continues to churn out nonfiction and fiction alike (though, interestingly, a recent Salon interview suggests he may retire from book reviewing).
It’s just too bad that he didn’t let The Magicians stand as a singular work, leaving it up to his fans to imagine, on their own, what becomes of Quentin & co. That being said, this series has another book coming, which even those readers disappointed by The Magician King will no doubt happily anticipate. Here’s hoping it brings us far from Fillory and seven-item scavenger hunt quests.