Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Review Rerun: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Cover art for The Magician King, featuring an eclipse of the sun visible through a natural stone arch on the shore of what appears to be a vast sea. Most of the cover is cast into shadow by the dark, weather-worn stone, but the sea and sky surrounding the eclipse are a bright grey.
A slightly different version of this review originally appeared on my old blog, Stella Matutina.

You recall how this is the sequel to THE MAGICIANS (which you need to at least try to read, please and thanks, because it's frickin' amazing)? I'm afraid I can't properly discuss it without one rather large spoiler for the previous book. It's a mostly guessable spoiler, since the very fact that the series keeps on going kind of gives the game away, but it does deal with something Grossman leaves up in the air until the very last line of THE MAGICIANS.

So, yeah. Keep that in mind.

Now we have that out of the way:

THE MAGICIAN KING picks up about two years after the end of THE MAGICIANS. Quentin, Eliot, Janet, and Julia have emigrated to Fillory, where they’ve taken up their kingly and queenly mantles. Everything’s going swimmingly... except Quentin's kind of bored with ruling a magical utopia, and worried about Julia to boot. Still, he accepts that his chance for heroism has passed him by when he rejects the possibility of an epic quest in favour of a much tamer tax collecting mission to a far-flung island.

Except one things leads to another, as things tend to do, and the "tame" mission becomes a frantic quest to return to Fillory after a spot of bother with a magic key sends Quentin and Julia back to the real world.

THE MAGICIAN KING is what I think of as an exile narrative. Much of the tension springs from the characters’ desperate desire to remain in a place they love and face expulsion from. For Quentin, this means returning to Fillory at all costs. Yes, he's a bit bored with the whole king thing, but Fillory is still home. It's his childhood dream come true, it's where his closest friends are, and he assumes it's the seat of his most promising future.

Things are a bit more complicated for Julia. As her story unfolds, it becomes clear she’s been in exile for years. There are damned good reasons she wants to escape the real world, but she needs to find her way to her new self more than she needs to connect with a place.

And hey, maybe the same is true for Quentin.

This is also a quest tale, as so many exile narratives are. It has hardcore shades of THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER--a nice complement to the first book's THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE feel--and owes much to the classic children’s fantasy story. THE MAGICIANS unfolded chronologically, sometimes with little to connect each scene save the passage of time. Its plot arc was shrouded and distinctly litfic. In contrast, THE MAGICIAN KING's plot arc is more like what you'd expect to find in fantasy. The protagonists begin with a clear goal, which leads them to another, which leads them to another. There’s a definite progression; a sense that each revelation deliberately paves the way for the next. The journey is as literal as it is metaphorical.

Grossman doesn’t enslave himself to the standard quest fantasy structure, though. He explores the system’s faults and virtues so's to celebrate and critique in equal measure. Quentin isn't your typical learn-on-the-go quester; he's kind of obsessed with these things and has a durned good idea of how they're supposed to work and where they're likely to trip you up. But even though he's spent his whole life reading about quests and heroism, he's still got a lot to learn about the practical side of the situation.

Consequently, THE MAGICIAN KING reminded me as much of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain as of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Taran, Alexander’s protagonist, spends five books learning that true heroism bears little resemblance to the stuff in the stories. It’s messy and complicated, and it usually involves one hell of a sacrifice. Quentin's emotional journey is similar to Taran's. He looks upon his tax-collecting quest as a bit of fun; something to pass the time and let him play at being a hero. It's very much about his enjoyment. Even when the situation grows more serious, it takes him a while to fully accept that heroism is about serving others more than yourself. He’s primed for this revelation at the book's beginning, as evidenced by his concern for Julia, but it still takes him a while to feel it.

I’ve read at least as many quest fantasies as Quentin--probably more, since he just seems to read the Fillory books over and over--so it didn’t take me too long to see how the book had to end. I read on, heart in my throat, terrified I’d see my worst fears confirmed. And I was 95% right--but thankfully, the 5% I got wrong would've been the truly tragic bit. The bit that would’ve been totally in character for a novel inspired by children’s fantasy, but all too terrible nonetheless. There’s a hefty measure of tragedy here, make no mistake, but I feel like there’s as much hope.

Of course, I wasn't guessing the second time through. I knew exactly what was set to happen both with Quentin's quest in the present and with Julia's flashbacks. Each of their final chapters hurt all the more because I was braced for it. Julia's, in particular, was absolutely terrible not just because it's an awful situation but because I'd spent the entire book dreading it.

Or dreading what I thought it would be, at least. I originally read an ARC of THE MAGICIAN KING, and both Penguin and Grossman were up front about the text having changed in substantial ways between the ARC and the copies that went on sale. Since I received the digital ARC well after the changes were publicized, I figured there was a chance I'd read an updated version, but I couldn't be sure. I was afraid the book I'd fallen in love with was lost to me forever once my DRC expired.

I suppose I should be able to tell you for sure now, but... well, I can't. I'm the sort of reader who actively tries to forget books between readings so I'll have a few surprises when I return to them. Large plot points stick with me--things like the last scene from Julia's flashbacks, or Quentin's ultimate resolution. Smaller things often don't.

Or not so small things. Like, I kind of forgot Josh existed, and I'd just spent a significant amount of time with him in THE MAGICIANS1.

But anyways: some of Julia's story was different from what I remembered, but that could be because I tried to forget. At its heart, the book is as wonderful as it ever was. If I did read a different version, my enjoyment in no way suffered for it. Hell, I probably loved THE MAGICIAN KING even more the second time through.

I feel like I haven't said nearly enough. I haven't told you about the multitude of funny bits (which are exactly my brand of hilarious), or how much I loved getting a glimpse at non-Brakebills magical education via the real-world scenes and Julia's flashbacks, or the quiet beauty that infused so much of the text, or the dragon, or how much it amused me that Julia stops using contractions once she moves to Fillory. (Oh, contraction-free dialogue! That old fantasy chestnut.) There's much to love here; much to mull over and poke at and gush over.

I loved the hell out of this, and I think my love will grow each and every time I revisit it. If you even sort of enjoyed THE MAGICIANS, you must pick it up.


While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned. If you're in search of another way to read THE MAGICIAN KING, you can try:

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  1. I forgot how much I'd forgotten about this one. Like, pretty much everything except the Julia parts. Must reread some time!

    1. I'd forgotten some surprising things, so it was a delight to rediscover so much.