I’m not a big fan of post-modernism. I realize that saying that and going on to review a Lev Grossman novel is a little bit like ordering a mai tai and then complaining because it’s got rum in it, but I’m going to anyway. The review, I mean, not the mai tai.
The Magician King is the sequel to Grossman’s highly successful fantasy novel The Magicians, and follows four young Americans who graduated from a magical school in up-state New York, had adventures (kind of ) and are now kings and queens of an alternate realm called Fillory. Any resemblance to the plot of The Chronicles of Narnia is purely intentional. The Magician King is marketed as Book Two of a trilogy, but there’s always the risk that Grossman will become drunk with celebrity and try for a “septimology,” to match the series he is attempting to deconstruct.
Postmodernism believes that interpretation is everything; that reality is personal, or at best, societally agreed-to. It is skeptical of any form that postulates a universal truth. In literature, postmodernism is probably best at dissecting how stories tell us what they tell us. Grossman turns the lens of postmodernism and its stylistic tools, ironic distance, self-reference, and constant pop-cultural references, on the modern fantasy story in these two books.
I was one of a tiny minority who didn’t care for The Magicians, not because of what Grossman was trying to do, but because the characters were boring. The Magician King held my interest much better, in part because Grossman moved to the type of story I like (the quest) but also because nearly half the book focuses on an interesting character whose experience of magic is a contrast to that of the “magic school” graduates, Eliot, Janet and the viewpoint character, Quentin.
Quentin, Janet and Eliot matriculated at Brakebills, an exclusive magic school – think Ivy League. When The Magicians ended, they had magically flown off to be the kings and queens of Fillory, a realm described in a set of popular children’s books that turned out to be not so imaginary, but very magical. They were joined by Julia, a friend of Quentin, who had failed the entrance exam of Brakebills. Julia had become a more powerful magician than any of them, but turned very strange in the process.
Why four thrones? No reason, except that the author of the “Fillory” novels gave that country four thrones, but the real reason is because Narnia did, and Narnia is the land Grossman has put under the microscope. Fillory has talking animals and magical ships. What is doesn’t have is a set of characters representing Ultimate Good and Ultimate Evil. Instead of a God/Christ figure like Aslan, Fillory’s resident god is Ember, a ram. Not to put too fine a point on it, their god is a sheep.
When The Magician King opens, Quentin, who is bored (his usual state) decides to go on a quest to the Outer Island. Julia says she will go with him. The trip is a disappointment, but on the way back, Quentin, who had heard about a golden key that winds the world, orders his ship to change course and goes to search for it. The result becomes a real quest, with real problems and real consequences. Along the way, the reader discovers more about Julia’s path to magic.
What is magic? For those of us who read fantasy, magic is often a metaphor for art, personal effectiveness, or power. Sometimes it is a form of connection. In the Narnia series, magic imbued the land. It was a resource; an unapologetically spiritual one. Grossman seems more interested in what we are told magic will do for us in fantasy stories. The Magician King starts off with a king who is bored and unnecessary. Fillory has two kings and two queens but doesn’t really need them because there isn’t very much to do. A magician in our world (which Quentin still calls “the real world”) has access to great wealth, but it doesn’t look any different than hedge-fund management or software development. Any one of Grossman’s characters could be Mark Zuckerberg, and that is intentional. Is magic just a skill set, like being good at math or learning languages? Or is it something more? Quentin senses that it is something more, but he isn’t sure what.
The ritual he’d done to ramp up his senses was actually working: he was so wired, he could feel where people were through the walls – he could sense the electricity in their bodies, the way a shark does. Time, that dull mechanism that usually reliably stamped out one second after another, like parts on a conveyor belt, erupted into a glorious melody. He was getting it all back now, everything he’d missed and more.
Julia sees magic as the manipulation of energy, and her experiences include the physical manifestation of energy; her magical partners feel the air change around them as a spell takes hold.
When Quentin and Julia go to Brakebills for help, Quentin is quickly disillusioned by his old headmaster, seeing him through new eyes.
… He really couldn’t believe the awe in which he used to hold this man. The towering Gandalfian wizard he once cowered before had been swapped out and replaced with a smug hidebound bureaucrat.
While the entitled, clueless Quentin was being coddled and protected at Brakebills, cutting classes and getting drunk with Eliot and Janet, Julia was walking on the wild side, learning from trial and error (mostly error); sinking deeper and deeper into depression, trying to turn away from magic, never quite escaping it, never quite capturing it. Julia is a brilliant obsessive, and it’s hard to imagine a better prerequisite for wizard-hood. Part of The Magician King seems to be about deciding which technique, bureaucratic academia or anarchic obsession, is better. Because the consequences of Julia’s exploration were devastating for her and potentially catastrophic for the world, hidebound and bureaucratic seems to win by default. Julia’s experience, however, seems more authentic than Quentin’s.
Quentin’s other lesson is about being a hero. He has a modern view of the hero as the guy who wins. When he encounters the dragon that lives in the Venetian estuary (the dragon is more of a plot device than a character, but it is a great plot device) the dragon tells him that a hero must be prepared to lose everything. Quentin replies that he has already lost everything. In this, as in most things, Quentin is wrong.
I have a lot of quibbles with this book, just as I did with The Magicians. Janet disappears from the story by page 45. The price Julia pays in her quest for knowledge, while it is a cliché, is the right choice in this case, but it ignores the most obvious consequence of this type of encounter with a god, without explanation. Poppy is inconsistent and unnecessary; determined to go back to Earth no matter what when Quentin asks her to stay, but agreeing to stay in Fillory at the end for no reason except that the plot needs her to. It is probably not coincidental that all of these problems are with women characters. At the end of the book, Grossman has an item appear conveniently when the plot needs it (“How’d that get there?”) without explanation. It isn’t fair to deconstruct magic and then use “magic” as the excuse when it suits the plot’s purposes.
On the other hand, there is Grossman’s prose. It shines here. It’s astute, grounded and quirky. Here is a description of Quentin’s room in Castle Whitespire:
It had been literally centuries since all four of Whitespire’s thrones had been filled at the same time and in the meantime the extra royal suites had been invaded and occupied by creeping armies of candelabras, defunct chandeliers listing and deflated like beached jellyfish, unplayable musical instruments, unreturnable diplomatic gifts, chairs and tables so piteously ornamental they would break if you looked at them, or even if you didn’t, dead animals ruthlessly stuffed in the very act of begging for mercy, urns and ewers and other even less easily identifiable vessels that you didn’t know whether to drink out of or go to the bathroom in.
I don’t know if I agree with Grossman’s answers in The Magician King, but I like his questions, and I like Quentin’s growth as the book ends. I am looking forward to the third book in this irritating and engaging series.