Thursday, August 11, 2011

Upping the Ante: A Review of Lev Grossman's The Magician King

The Magician KingWe've been talking a lot this week (and last) about how great Lev Grossman's first novel The Magicians is--it leads to exciting discussions when you teach it, it's clever and subtle in its characterization, and it provocatively blurs the boundary between fantasy and reality.  I imagine that we could say a good deal more as well, passing our favorite bits of the novel back and forth, debating the meaning of the ending, and parsing all the different allusions that Grossman makes to other works.

In short, The Magicians is great because it makes you think and because it's fun.  In fact, I've read some posts around the internet that were disappointed that there was a sequel because they were worried that nothing could be as awesome as The Magicians.

They were wrong.  The Magician King is not just as good as The Magicians--it's better.

I should probably end this review right there, because almost everything I want to say gives away too much while not saying enough.  Maybe I'll just say that watching the layers of The Magician King unfold was among the most satisfying reading experiences I've ever had.  Grossman weaves together the story of Quentin after he becomes one of the four kings and queens in Fillory with the story of what Julia did while Quentin was at Brakebills.  The movement in between Quentin and Julia, classically trained magician and hedge witch, male and female, Fillory and Earth, present and past makes for a narrative that is richer, deeper, and more significant than The Magicians.

Grossman again hits just the right note with Quentin--for he is no longer the angsty adolescent he was in The Magicians.  He has grown up, and he is now a twentysomething who is learning to accept responsibility for the choices that he has made and the consequences that come with them.  But it is the female characters who really shine in The Magician King.  Julia's sections of the novel are fascinating, and they run in brilliant counterpoint to the quest that Quentin has undertaken.  She is a genius, and she is flawed, and more than anything, she is believable and real--her story alone is reason enough to read the novel.

Like The Magicians, The Magician King is marked with literary allusions, references to pop culture, and a narrative voice with a dry sense of humor.  On occasion I did wonder if some of these references will stand the test of time--will calling Janet "Fillory Clinton" because she is in charge of Fillory foreign relations still make sense in 50 years?  But also like in The Magicians, Grossman takes these references and allusions and uses them for his own purposes, skillfully incorporating them into his story in a way that makes sense for his characters and his setting.  And while the novel certainly draws on Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Odysseus and Cryptonomicon, it's more than just these ideas mixed together--The Magician King is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

This is where the real strength of The Magician King lies: it takes multiple narratives and a wide variety of influences and a whole range of characters and brings them together to a finely crafted point, with Grossman expertly fitting each part in precisely the place it needs to be.

It's a case of content and form coming together in perfect harmony, because this is ultimately what The Magician King is about--it's a novel about where we each need to be, how we figure out what that place is, and then, how we get there.  And if that's not a story worth telling, then I don't know what is.