Posts Tagged ‘ Lev Grossman ’

Lev Grossman – The Magician King (Book Review)

The Magician King cover

Lev Grossman – The Magician King

It’s difficult to review Lev Grosman’s The Magician King without spoiling major events from The Magicians. In fact, you shouldn’t even read The Magician King’s book jacket before finishing the first book. But since spoiler-free reviews of this second book are so rare, I’m going to do my best to provide one.

The Magicians was a sort of twisted, adult Harry Potter, replacing the wizards with autistic nerds who found that magic didn’t automatically give their lives meaning or direction. This may sound like a formula for cynical, overly-clever trash, but it worked thanks to its mix of literary sensibilities and a sincere love of the source material. The Magician King is the continuing adventures of Quentin and his friends. The main character is now (slightly) more mature and (usually) less whiny, but no more satisfied with his life. Despite a fast-moving plot that takes several sudden turns, this feels in most ways like a true sequel to The Magicians. Clever and incisive, it manages to capture both the joy of fantasy children’s stories and an understanding of the real world waiting when you grow up.

In fact, this book starts out even stronger than the first, with the characters and status quo already established, and the reader very invested in what happens next. I laughed out loud twice in the first chapter. Also, a frustrating loose plot thread from The Magicians is explored, with a character’s full backstory explained.

As the book goes on, though, it seems to be missing some of the elements that worked in The Magicians. Where that book second-guessed its genre trappings, this one embraces them fully. The Magicians hinted at logical systems that drive magic and the magical society; The Magician King just says that of course the world is filled with beetles who poop gold and beloved fairy-tale Kings who rule with unquestioned authority. One of the defining scenes of the first book had its characters reject a magical figure whom children would have accepted; in this second book, that character is right and unassailable. In fact, the main plot of The Magician King centers around a Quest, and once our protagonists are called to it, they learn that Quests are just a matter of wandering around waiting to stumble on to the MacGuffins.

Despite all that, The Magician King succeeds very well on its own terms. Each of its four parts is dense enough with story to feel like its own novel, and the characters are a lot of fun to follow. Though I have quibbles with a few character portrayals late in the book, the conclusion is nearly perfect. Unlike the somewhat-arbitrary ending to The Magicians, this one gives each character exactly what they deserve with the precision of a fairy king meting out judgment. Exactly right for the characters, fair to the readers, and with some knowing commentary on what it means to be a responsible adult in reality, those final pages show Grossman at his best.

Grade: B

Lev Grossman – The Magicians (Book Review)

“Magic, Quentin discovered, wasn’t romantic at all. It was grim and repetitive and deceptive. And he worked his ass off and became very good at it.”

The Magicians cover

Lev Grossman - The Magicians

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is a deconstructionist, more realistic take on the tropes of Harry Potter and Narnia. Magic is dangerous and mysterious, and the faux-Latin wand-waving is replaced by borderline autistic kids in a boring, demanding school. However, The Magicians isn’t just designed to make Harry Potter seem ridiculous. It’s a complex, exciting story in its own right, and while it’s aimed at an audience tired of fantasy clichés, what it offers in the end is still a fantasy tale.

What Grossman does right, he does very right. The world of magic feels consistent and thought-through in a way that Harry Potter, with its arbitrary spells and inconsistencies, never approaches. Magic is a dangerous, unknown force, and if the school’s body count is low, that’s only because the students are studying for tests instead of fighting dark lords. The fundamentals of magic are still undefined, though; The Magicians wins the reader’s acceptance partly by being more glib than other stories. Where Harry Potter spent hundreds of pages on each school year, The Magicians covers Quentin’s entire young adulthood in the stretch of one book. Many elements do feel like they would fall apart on closer examination (such as the workings of the wider magical community), and a few items (like the Quidditch equivalent) are unnecessary additions just to draw parallels to Harry Potter.

I’d hate to think that the only way to make good adult fantasy seem consistent is with Grossman’s fast pace and lack of details. In this case, at least, it works because we want to see the passage of time. The Magicians is a strong character-based book, and Quentin and his friends evolve considerably over the years. The writing doesn’t dwell on this, but the characters do change slowly but noticeably, and believably, as they age. Once the world and plot are established, Grossman often uses a single scene to stand in for an entire stretch of months or even a year. That one scene will have the detail needed both to paint a picture of the characters’ current lives and to give some assurance that the magical system is rich and consistent, even if the reader can’t stop to learn everything.

The Magicians is an exploration of aimless young adulthood. Magic is tempting, but it doesn’t automatically give meaning to life, and the power it offers can be a dangerous distraction from the concerns that keep mundane people grounded. Just as in real life, these people need to find their own way, and the latter part of the book actually becomes laugh-out-loud funny when the more stubborn believers in fairy tales try to live to those expectations. The most common criticism of this book is that the characters are whiny and unlikeable, though I always found them to be so believable that that wasn’t a concern. The conclusion offers some resolution to this, but is also a little frustrating: There are at least three scenes that feel like the set-up to a final status quo, and every one is suddenly reversed by the next. The actual ending feels a little arbitrary, as it’s the least satisfying and the best for a sequel, but at least it promises that the sequel will be a very different story. Quentin grows up more over the course of this book than Harry Potter does in seven, and that’s a great argument for why his story should be allowed to continue.

Grade: B+