Review: The Magician King, Lev Grossman

I will be honest and say that when Viking contacted me to offer me an early copy of The Magician King (thanks, Viking!) (FTC, take note), and I said yes, that was about the extent of the effort I was willing to put forth to acquire the sequel to The Magicians. Had I not received it in the post, I would most likely have seen The Magician King on the shelf at the library a few months from now, and checked it out then. I liked The Magicians, but I did not want to marry The Magicians (a maneuver that in any case would defy legality, even in a tolerantish state like New York). I never warmed to Quentin, the protagonist, and I thought the plot was unevenly distributed throughout the book.

Having said that, I must have been in just the right mood for The Magician King, because I went through it like a hot knife through butter. I kept glancing up for subway stops, glancing back down at the book, and being shocked at how far into it I was after what felt like a very short reading time. Perhaps it was because the references to Narnia were rarer (I still maintain that Quentin’s version of the world can not have the Narnia books as well as the fictional Fillory ones), but I found this book to be something closer than its predecessor to what I would imagine grown-up Narnia to be. It didn’t have quite the safe-and-home feeling that Narnia gives me, but it was like — it felt more viably like someone else’s tribute to Narnia than The Magicians did. I don’t know how to explain what I’m trying to say here so I’m going to move on to plot summary, which will of necessity include some spoilers for The Magicians.

Our protagonist Quentin Coldwater, as ennui-ridden as ever, is a king of Fillory, ruling alongside Eliot and Janet, with Julia around there too, being all weird. He gets a bug in his ear to go off on a quest, and almost at once — to his intense chagrin — he is thrown back into the real world. Meanwhile, in alternating chapter flashbacks, we find out what’s been going on with Julia in the years that Quentin spent ennui-ing all over Brakebills. If you were upset that we didn’t find out what happened with Julia (I was), fear no more, you will find out now.

I spent the bulk of The Magician King feeling slightly grumbly. I have a bias in favor of retaining my first impressions. I was all, “Oh, you may be moving along at a brisk pace, Grossman sequel, but it is not because I love you! Your two narratives are poorly integrated! Your protagonist is still a jerk! I still remember all the stuff that pissed me off about The Magicians!” But as I hit about the two-thirds mark, these complaints began to be answered one by one. The Magician King turned into a coherent whole and what is more, it made a coherent whole out of The Magicians! Which I feel is just what a sequel ought to do. (Only I wanted some movement on the Alice front, and it was not forthcoming.)

In short, The Magicians had a better story for my Narnia/Harry Potter-loving little heart, but The Magician King is a better piece of storytelling. Quentin — not to spoil things for you, but y’all, Quentin kinda grows up. I might just go out and buy a paperback copy of The Magicians someday now. The things I liked about it are still true, and the things I didn’t like about it are handled (almost all of them) by The Magician King.

And now, the obligatory Oscar Wilde nitpick about something that matters absolutely zero and can be easily explained away but irritated me nonetheless because I don’t think the explanations that would be offered in its defense would actually be true:

Brakebills was for Marquis of Queensberry types. Murs was more your stone-cold street-fighting man.

NO. NO to this. NO.

I comprehend perfectly the point of this passage. The Queensberry Rules govern fair play in boxing and suggest, in general, the ideals of fighting like a gentleman. The phrasing of this sentence links Brakebills to the landed gentry while also evoking the cultural metonym of the Queensberry Rules. If it weren’t so dismayingly wrong it would be a tidy bit of shorthand. It’s just — it’s just — God, it’s just wrong. The Marquess of Queensberry was as stone-cold as any character in The Magician King, and significantly more mentally unstable (yes! and I say that having not forgotten all the moderately-to-very mentally unstable characters in this book). I can scarcely imagine anybody who fought less like a gentleman than the Marquess of Queensberry. The Marquess of Queensberry fought like a street urchin. An antisemitic homophobic street urchin. The Marquess of Queensberry wasn’t a Queensberry Rules type. Is all I’m saying. He fought dirty. I’m just saying.

OH BY THE WAY. It turns out? That the Marquess of Queensberry is related by marriage to Osama bin Laden. It’s true. His great-great-grandson had a bin Laden nephew as an in-law (the former head, as it happens, of the bin Laden Corporation). As you may imagine, this news fills my heart with inexpressible joy. From now on when I am having a kankkarankka paiva, I will remember this information and be of good cheer.

Again, The Magician King was sent to me for review by Viking. It comes out the day after tomorrow, the ninth of August.

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27 thoughts on “Review: The Magician King, Lev Grossman

  1. Hmm… I’m always vaguely relieved when I can cross some popular series off my list because I don’t need another series to follow, and I believe it was your review that caused me to cross The Magicians off the list, and now I see this and I’m all torn again.

    • Sorry, didn’t mean to cause you inner turmoil. It’s a short series, just two books, so if you uncrossed it off your list, it wouldn’t require a huge time commitment or anything.

  2. Well, even with my love hate relationship with The Magicians, I plan to read this one. I’m glad to hear Quentin grows up. About time.

  3. I haven’t read the first book yet. I own it, so should get to it one of these days. I had it out from the library before and had a hard time getting into it…

    • The first book starts a bit slow, I think. Persevere! In the long run it’s worth it — the first book has lots of really good things about it, and the second book is excellent.

  4. I absolutely love your reviews! I read Grossman’s novel Codex, and I didn’t like it very much at all. I am afraid I’ve avoided him ever since. Have you read Codex? How does it compare to these two books? You have me almost decided to give him another shot.

  5. It seemed like everyone was disappointed by the first book, so I am glad to hear that the sequel redeemed the series. I had actually considered reading the first one, but all the bad press scared me away. I guess I might need to reconsider, seeing as this one sort of smooths things over. Loved this review. It’s made me want to test out this series.

    • Were they? I thought a lot of people really enjoyed the first book (including me, honestly!). The first book was well worth reading, and the two books together make a very pleasing whole.

  6. The things you learn on this blog!

    Want to try Lev Grossman. Sounds like you had a small bunch of fun getting through this one (if not to entertain yourself by tearing it to pieces…fun for us, anyway).

  7. I also haven’t been feeling particularly enthusiastic about The Magician King though I did receive an ebook copy from NetGalley, which I passed on to someone to review for me. But hearing that you enjoyed this book better then the last makes me think that maybe I should give it a try after all. I would actually be really happy if I liked The Magician King because, from my brief interactions with him, Grossman seems like a really nice guy and I like it when Nice Guys write good books.

    • Same! I felt guilty for not totally loving The Magicians, because I agree, whenever I read anything Lev Grossman’s written, he seems like a very cool, nice, down-to-earth guy.

    • Oh, but, I felt just the same! I liked parts of the first book a lot, but I’d kind of written it off. Seriously, if you liked the first book at all, I say read the second one.

  8. I fell in love with this book, and so am gratified every time someone says they like it better than the first one. Also my kids (15 and 17) read this one in a day. And that says something, because they don’t share that many of my tastes!

  9. Goodness, I need a dictionary here today! I learn SO MUCH from you. Like ‘ennui-ing’. Yes. And metonym. And something else I can’t find because I still have metonym in my copy spot and need to got look it up. Assy-thingummy? Kankkanranka? Barmier?! Sigh.

    I was not moved ever to add Magicians to my tbr but NOW (no small due to Jeanne’s review and yours of this 2nd story). NOW that I hear this is a two book series, I think I will get on board.
    :)

  10. Pingback: REVIEW: The Magician King by Lev Grossman « Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog

  11. I loved the first book, truth be told. I thought it danced that fine line between magic and realism that kept the characters somewhat believable. I read it twice, and then picked it up before I bought the second.

    But this one left such a terrible impression, I’ll be hard pressed to ever pick up one of his books again. Quentin retains his cynical, egotistical, self centered attitude all throughout the book. Every so often you see a break in the ice, where he shows some empathy for other human beings, but even this is rare. When I look at the story from a bird’s eye view, I can admit that I enjoy it. But being stuck seeing such a fantastic book through the eyes of such a prick has left me feeling more empty than when I started.

    Forgive my negative comments, it was still very well written. But ultimately I was let down by this novel.

  12. Pingback: The Magician King, by Lev Grossman – Book Review | Linus's Blanket

  13. Pingback: Here There Be Books (formerly Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog) | REVIEW: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

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