The first time I read the Magician King, I’d picked up an advance reading copy from somewhere and still had the snarky banter of The Magicians ringing through my skull. I loved the grimdark coming of age that was teenage Quentin Coldwater, learning magic at Brakebills and plowing through the bullshit of life. Emo as hell, certainly, but that made the abuse hurled in Quentin’s face all the more enjoyable. Schadenfreude as magical education. There was a charm to the magic too, how it was based on real sleight of hand and real personality problems common (I presume) to entertaining magicians. And, when they bust into Fillory after graduation, it felt like emerging into one’s place in life, finally free to apply that hard-earned magic and pursue something worthwhile.
The Magician King gives you all of that again, and that’s where it falls completely flat.
For Christmas I got a published edition of Magician King in softcover. It tells the story of Quentin as 1/4 the monarch of Fillory, the Narnia allegory in Grossman’s world, having a freaking midlife crisis and once again endangering all of the multiverse with his ego.
If you notice, there’s a grimdark cover and there’s a Narnia-esque cover Aslan would be proud of. Here’s the grimdark. This is important, because Grossman stays firmly there, and this is the better representation of the book than that shiny clock tree.
I’m not saying it’s a bad novel. It’s certainly a no-holds barred deep dive into the Mariana Trench of Quentin’s existential longing. There’s familiar magical tropes done in a snarky, unimpressed way. And there’s the danger constantly at one’s elbow, not to mention the danger of faceplanting into a cultural reference. All lovely, lovely things.
But cut the crap, okay? Coldwater’s done all this in the first book. There’s a bit where he and Alice (I’m still crying) are the only two who take a ridiculous, days-long trek through the Arctic in their skivvies, relying on their magic to keep them alive, and become MASTER MAGICIANS in the process. Where the fuck did that go? Quentin’s trudging around his kingdom ON FOOT. He’s actually building a ship to take him across Fillory. He hires a swordsman to protect him. At the end of Magicians, his hair goes white from everything he’s gone through. He could fly, he could track down the Questing Beast single-handedly, and he didn’t take any shit. Re-visiting Quentin as the hapless protagonist in his own story might be nostalgic, as the Times so insipidly suggests, but its not moving his story forward. It doesn’t make me glad to be around him. I feel like he can’t ever grow as a person. He’s gone full retard, in the literal sense of the word. And, the boy is just as entitled, just as uselessly over-educated and dripping with affluenza. Bloody annoying he hasn’t grown out of it.
Rather, I think everybody will enjoy Julia’s story better. There’s not enough of it, and it doesn’t take center stage, but it’s the underdog tale. It’s pretty cool of any author to revisit an under-developed character, let alone make a fantastically resourceful, anal, type-A woman with remarkable agency.
Which is why I am disappointed the most graphic scene was undermined, which seems only put in because there needed to be a visceral suckerpunch to rival Alice cheating with Penny. Not the same though, and borders on misogyny to be honest- as if Quentin’s subconscious resentment of Julia as his unrequited ripped its way from Grossman’s head. It certainly undoes a lot of the agency she started out with, almost as if life is punishing her for daring to look for happiness. Otherwise it’s easy to recognize a Brooklyn kid scraping and scrabbling together a life, even if Julia IS just slumming it there. And the ending is deeply unsatisfying. I basically slammed the book shut and cried, “Is that it? MOTHER-F*$%!” in a crowded train. Nihilist, is the word. I guess it reflects the generation just before millenials, also, in their 90’s defeatist view of the world and all its problems.
The Magician King is worth reading just for the snark and grit, and Lev Grossman’s excellent narrative voice. Let’s face it, Vox does NOT bitch about a book this much if it isn’t good enough to make Vox frustrated. Just don’t be surprised if you snap at people in a profoundly dickish way after you read it, or if it leaves you feeling deeply unsatisfied. I guess he was trying to sell Magician’s Land? Well, bravo, sir. On the list! But I’m not happy about it.