When I reviewed The Magicians1 last year, I noted that, despite my mixed feelings for Lev Grossman, which includes an outright antipathy for his notions of good storytelling, I was nonetheless impressed by the novelty of what he’d accomplished with his new novel. Almost an anti-bildungsroman, it took every good aspect of magical tales and flushed them down the toilet—ostensibly as a creative way of writing the general malaise that affects the unambitious or ambivalent.
This review may contain spoilers if you have not read the first book.
The Magicians nonetheless seemed like a one-shot contrivance: Grossman’s ass-over-teakettle turning of the boy-meets-magic trope is quite clever, but won’t surprise anybody twice. Grossman’s gifts as a fabulist are less than exemplary (e.g., his world-building is virtually nil), so I was curious just what he’d find to write about in a sequel. As it turns out, the answer is “everything and nothing”.
The Magician King finds Quentin, our anti-hero, back on one of the four thrones of the magical kingdom Fillory, and bored out of his skull. Thirsting for an adventure, he embarks on a voyage to a far-flung island of Fillory, ends up questing for Seven Golden Keys, and suddenly finds himself, along with his traumatized former crush Julia, back in the Real World. This present a problem, since they have no way of returning to Fillory.
Julia herself is a centerpiece of the novel, though she was largely absent from the first book. Grossman tells the tale how she learned magic the unofficial way, populating a series of flophouses for amateur magicians to learn her craft rather than attending the prestigious Brakebills College, Quentin’s alma mater. In a series of vignettes which pepper the main narrative, readers learn the slow process by which Julia became an excellent magician and manages to lose her humanity, both literally and figuratively, leaving her a bit “emo”, to say the least. One gets the impression that she will become important by this series’ (trilogy’s?) end.
But the main narrative of The Magician King is rather unfocused; though it by and large consists of Quentin and Julia attempting to return to Fillory and complete their Quest, it simultaneously sets up a much larger conflict which will likely form the primary antagonist of the final novel; the premise is interesting, insofar as it’s the first fantasy book I’ve ever read which talks about the fundamental nature of magic; it’s also maddeningly glib and vague, which I can’t yet determine to be either shrewd writing or sheer ineptitude on Grossman’s part. The idea of the series turning into a bona fide fantasy story is somewhat at odds with the sneering, palatially-hollow thesis of the first book.
In other words, The Magician King is a long description of the interstices between the lewd and brazen disappointments of the book and whatever fiery conclusion is yet to come; if The Magicians set up the characters without any real story, then The Magician King sets up a (potential) story without any real characterization to speak of, unless you count Julia’s backstory. There isn’t a rising action in the way of most famous cinematic middle-children like The Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers, so other than a sense of general but undirected unease about the plot and the remote possibility of empathy with the characters, who, as we’ve established, are assholes, The Magician King ends with an ersatz finality, with a narrative roadblock dropped in front of Quentin the audience knows will be swiftly overcome, and an impending disaster that’s only important because Grossman tells us it’s important, not because we’ve come to realize it on our own.
In Grossman’s article for the Wall Street Journal in July of this year, he gives some insight into what drives his creative process. Wizards and faeries and magic wands are all de rigueur, of course, but all Grossman indicates that all good fantasy has more to do with character development than swords and sorcery2:
But what’s the point, when you can just use magic to fix everything? It’s just wish-fulfillment [says a hypothetical hater of fantasy novels]
The more fantasy you read, the more you notice that even after the hero comes of age, it is rare that all those fancy powers that he has gained solve all his problems. It’s not about wish-fulfillment, or at least it’s not just about that.
Harry Potter’s problems don’t end when he becomes a wizard, they’re just beginning. The moment that I look for in a serious fantasy novel is when the hero realizes that yes, I can now speak to animals or move between worlds or bend the raw energy of the unknown to my will. But my problems remain the same. At which point the hero realizes that magic is the easy stuff. The real battles, the hard battles, are the ones that get fought on the inside.
To whatever extent I can call Grossman a talented writer, I think he did a novel job of getting this across in The Magicians by co-opting a currently popular genre and subverting it with this notion. But while The Magician King plays with these same notions, the novelty is gone, and despite Grossman’s intentions of repositioning his series more firmly in the fanasty genre this time around, with slightly less cynical subversion, one can’t help get the idea that characters are doing little more than farting around. If this is the setup for an explosive third novel, it’s the most mind-numbing and arbitrary rising action I’ve ever read.
Only time will tell if Grossman manages to turn his story arc into something grand and vindicating, however darksome, or if it will end up a muddled mess of boneless characters and fuzzy math. My suspicions point me toward the latter, though I yearn to be wrong this time around.