Of Dues Paid, Paths Traveled, and Truths Found – A Review of The Magician King by Lev Grossman

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Books are, I’ve found, very much like people, in the sense that it’s possible to feel some very strong emotions when it comes to them. It’s possible to love a book blindly, for instance, ignoring all its flaws in favor of the things that one likes about it. It’s also entirely possible to hate a book uncompromisingly, and just thinking about it can make one cringe or put one in a thoroughly bad mood. One can come to love a book one used to dislike, just as one can come to love someone over time, and the opposite is equally true: one can grow to dislike a book one used to love. Really, the only difference between books and people is that no one except oneself truly gets hurt when one picks up or puts away a book, and they will always be there to give one a second chance.

This is, in many ways, quite true with series. Though the broader story arc might link one book to another, many readers find that they grow to love a small number of books in particular, especially when the series is more than a trilogy. Harry Potter is my favorite example: of all the seven books, I am most enamored with The Goblet of Fire, while I could really live without The Order of the Phoenix. I know each is part of a whole, and I know that The Order of the Phoenix is just as important as The Goblet of Fire in the overall scheme of things, but I prefer The Goblet of Fire on the whole, mostly because it contains elements that I fell in love with about the Harry Potter series that I felt were lost in The Order of the Phoenix, or were at the very least muted. I understand that those elements had to be tossed out or put aside for the overall storyline, and I know doing so was necessary to furthering the development of the whole series, but favoring books, much like love, has a rationality all on its own.

The same goes for my relationship with characters. When I first read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians I loved the whole thing: characters, plot, themes, everything. It was so well-written, so well-told, that I was riding on the high of the storytelling for quite a while. It was only later, when I started thinking about it more closely, that I came to realize that while I adored the novel as an overall package, there was quite a bit about it that I disliked – or rather, one person, in particular: Quentin Coldwater.

I should say that my relationship with Quentin is an ambivalent one. On one hand I love him as a character: he is quite realistic and human, and his mistakes are entirely human mistakes. In my review of The Magicians, I stated the novel is a version of Harry Potter and Narnia (but mostly Narnia) with all the idealism taken out of it, and in many ways Quentin is like the heroes of those novels with all the idealism but none of the will to get things done, always expecting things to happen to him when they he ought to be happening to the world.

But in many ways a character is an idea, something that one addresses as a reader entering a story and immersing oneself in it. When one begins to think of them as people, that’s where my issues with Quentin arise. As a character, I like Quentin, but as a person, I came to absolutely hate his guts. If he had been narrating The Magicians in first person I don’t think I would have gotten past the first few chapters, because when I thought about it he reminded me a lot of Holden Caulfield, and I really do not enjoy Caulfield’s voice in the least. The minute he enters Brakebills he keeps expecting to become the hero of the story, to become Harry Potter or one of the Pevensie children, believing that his story is just around the corner. And he gets that story, all right – but at a steep, steep price.

It was because of this that I took my time getting to the next novel in the series, The Magician King. I knew that if I picked it up I would wind up reading about Quentin again, and I was still ticked off enough at him that I didn’t want to run into him at all, if I could avoid it. I needed time to cool my head before I could so much as pick it up and read it. I might have liked the other characters, but Quentin was still the main character of the story, and I had to deal with him if I wanted to get through the novel. I was in no rush; the book would still be there to be read, after all, and I could get to it whenever I felt I was ready to look at Quentin’s face again, so to speak.

It was Hope who finally nudged me into reading The Magician King. I had made plans to go into Jim C. Hines’ Libriomancer, or maybe go back to proper epic fantasy with N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but Hope was insistent that I read The Magician King, allaying my apprehensions about having to live in Quentin’s head again by saying that Julia would be co-narrating the novel. That was enough for me to set aside both Libriomancer and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and finally get me to pick up The Magician King.

Once again, Hope proved correct in her assessment of this novel, because The Magician King proved to be not only as good as The Magicians, but, to my mind, better. I attribute this to the fact that I don’t have to spend so much time with Quentin anymore, but moreover to the fact that Quentin is actually a better person in this novel – somewhat, and mostly towards the end, but altogether he’s not as irritating as he used to be.

The Magician King is an almost direct continuation of the events of The Magicians. Quentin is now a King of Fillory, along with his old Brakebills friends Eliot and Jane, and also, surprisingly, Julia. In the first book Julia had become a hedge witch, having picked up magic from somewhere, but since the first novel’s told pretty much from Quentin’s point of view, the reader has no idea how she came about her powers – powers that are strong enough, apparently, for her to become a Queen of Fillory right alongside the Brakebills kids, and strange enough to give said Brakebills kids the creeps. Quentin knows something’s very wrong with Julia, but is unable to quite pinpoint what it is – at least until a new adventure starts for them in Fillory.

The novel is actually two stories: one is Quentin’s adventure (though he would very much like to argue about that term), and the other is Julia’s story about how she became what she is at the beginning of the novel. Of the two stories Quentin’s is the most typical, the only difference being that Quentin isn’t quite an idiot anymore – though to be quite honest I was very harsh with him in the first third of the book, carrying as I was all the biases I had from reading the previous novel. It was only a little later that I eased up on Quentin, and realized that he was aware of his mistakes and what they had done to not just Alice, but to Josh and Penny as well, and that while he regretted them, he was trying his best not to learn from his mistakes, and move on. There is still that sense of entitlement that he has, which comes to the fore when he learns that while he and Julia had been figuring a way to get back to Fillory after finding themselves trapped in the real world, Eliot had been on an adventure of the sort Quentin himself desperately wanted to have, but it’s somewhat more muted now. He still isn’t the sort of person I’d want to be friends with, but he’s not as bad as he used to be.

Of course, my assessment of Quentin could be softer because he’s no longer the only protagonist. He’s no longer standing alone in the limelight, and so I can relax a bit when it comes to him because the other protagonist of this novel, Julia, has a story that is by far more interesting, and infinitely more heartbreaking, than Quentin’s storyline is by a mile. Somewhere between Quentin finding out that Julia is a hedge witch in The Magicians and the beginning of The Magician King, Julia’s powers increased more than a hundredfold – and it was the kind of power that Quentin and his fellow Brakebills graduates feared and respected. How she got there is told in parallel to Quentin’s story in The Magician King, and it is, by far, more intriguing and more painful.

As a character, Julia is one of those I really like, but I also think a lot of people will find themselves turned off by her. Her storyline, as I said, is not the prettiest, nor is her attitude – some would call her incredibly selfish, but there are reasons for her selfishness, and her coldness, and her anger. She is motivated by all of those, yes, but at the same time she is determined, and methodical, and so very intelligent in ways that Quentin isn’t. I suppose it’s because she earned her way to her powers, whereas Quentin had everything handed to him on a silver platter over at Brakebills. Julia’s school was much harder, much harsher, and while it’s broken her, it’s also rewarded her in ways that Brakebills didn’t reward Quentin and his friends. Of course, the question becomes whether or not that was worth the price, but it takes reading the novel to determine for oneself whether or not that’s true. And, I feel, that’s the beauty of Julia’s story, and the beauty of Grossman’s writing of her story: there is no judgment save what the reader brings to the table.

Aside from Quentin and Julia, many of the familiar characters from The Magicians make an appearance. Eliot and Janet have already been mentioned, and Josh and Penny make their own appearances as well. Even Alice puts in appearances from time to time, in the form of Quentin’s memories of her. But the most interesting character introduced in this new novel is Poppy, an Australian who’s traveling around the world doing fieldwork for her thesis on dragons. Her dynamic with the original group is fascinating, not only because she’s Josh’s love interest, but also because she seems to make the most sense out of all of them in the story. She’s the one who calls Quentin out when he complains about not having an adventure, asking him if his trip back to Earth to Julia might not his adventure after all. It might not have been the one he wanted, true, but it was the one he was best suited for. When she joins them in Fillory she also proves that she has one of the most level heads of them all, addressing things practically and as they come. She is in many ways the balance that Alice would probably have become had she survived the events of the last novel – or maybe not. It’s difficult to speculate about the directions characters take in this novel, and that’s when they’re alive, never mind if they’re dead.

If The Magicians had a somewhat narrow scope of the magical world, hinting only at the possibilities of magic beyond Brakebills and Fillory, The Magician King expands that world exponentially, presenting not only what lies beyond the horizons of magic on Earth, but in Fillory and the Neitherlands, as well. Julia’s story showcases the world of hedge witches, those practitioners of magic considered dangerous or worse by those in Brakebills because they come into magic without the safety nets and systems afforded by the school to its students. It becomes clear that a lot of them aren’t getting very far on their own, but Julia proves that that need not be the case. Without the limits imposed by Brakebills upon its students, hedge witches with enough determination and intelligence – both of which Julia has in spades – can gain access to magic the likes of which those in Brakebills can only speculate upon.

Now, to be fair, at no point is hedge magic shown to be superior to or weaker than Brakebills magic; it’s just different, with a whole different set of pros and cons. Quentin paid his dues at Brakebills and in Fillory, and so did Julia – it’s just that Julia’s dues were paid in a different kind of currency from Quentin’s. Some people might say that Julia paid much too high a price for her power, but that’s something only the reader can decide for himself or herself.

Aside from the world of hedge magic, there’s also the Neitherlands, where a great catastrophe has occurred and, by the end of the novel, been slowed down, at least. This is where the groundwork for the next novel is laid. It’s become quite obvious that Quentin is following the Hero’s Journey as laid out by Joseph Campbell. In The Magicians, it’s about his trial, about proving himself worthy to be the hero. The Magician King is about his main quest. By the end of the novel, given the events that happen, it becomes clear that Quentin, now a hero, has to go home – and no, it’s not Fillory. That point of his journey is over. I speculate that the third book will be about Quentin going home and dying – maybe a physical death, but more likely a metaphorical one. Heroes can die and live forever in legend, as Achilles did, but not all heroes go that way. Sometimes, they become gods.

But that’s for the third book to show the reader: the groundwork has already been laid, both in Quentin’s story in the Neitherlands and Julia’s story about how she became who she was at the beginning of the novel. It’ll take reading the third book – probably the last one, given how the arc is going – to see where Quentin finally ends up in all of this. Hopefully he finds what he’s been looking for all along.

Overall, The Magician King is a more than worthy continuation of The Magicians, in many ways a whole lot better than the first book – a feat in the second book of a series, which generally tend to be as good as or (more often) worse than the first. As a story it stands up well, but it promises so much more to come in the third book of the series. Some stories that began in the first book are brought to a close here, but many, many more have been opened, and, given how carefully Grossman has balanced this series so far, they are bound to be explored and brought to a close in the next book. And this time, I know I’ll pick it up as soon as it comes out. Quentin is more bearable now, after all.

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