Lev Grossman crafts an exciting homage, but a profoundly unlikable protagonist stands in its way.
The Magician KingPublisher: Viking
Length: 416 pages
Author: Lev Grossman
Publication date: 2011-08
After finding more to criticize than love about Lev Grossman’s anti-whimsy novel The Magicians, the initial chapters of The Magician King were turned with plenty of misgivings already on reserve. But delving into Grossman’s latest deconstruction of fantasy literature, this time finding more bones to pick with Narnia than Hogwarts, it came as a pleasant surprise to see some severe flaws in The Magicians have been cleaned up in the interim, allowing a lustier story of magic, mystery, and daring to unfold, as well as finally breathe some of its own air—instead of that of another author.
“We have to go back!” cried Eliot in the closing chapter of The Magicians. Not back to the Lost island but back to Fillory, a Narnia-like land from a set of children’s books that really exists, and features vicious adversaries, exacting talking animals offering perilous quests, and other natives who don’t mind bowing to carpetbagging Earthlings who accept the Fillorian throne.
In the opening pages of The Magician King, we understand we’ve already been back: Quentin Coldwater, our narcissist narrator and questionable hero, is the understudy king to Eliot’s High King of Fillory, where he, Quentin, Janet, and Quentin’s high-school friend Julia have been wasting away in luxury as nouveau royalty, once again thinking they ought to be doing something with their lives, but not sure what.
When Quentin sets out with Julia to collect some taxes from a distant island territory, both find themselves thrust into a hero’s journey in search of seven (it’s always seven) magical keys to save the fabric of Fillory itself. Unanticipated is a key which transports them to the last place they ever wanted to go: Massachusetts. Desperate to get back to their comfortable castle beds and a newfound sense of purpose, Quentin must dive into the shady underground community of hedge witchcraft with Julia, where they encounter faces new and old in this unexpected side journey back “home”.
Many critics described The Magicians as the adult Harry Potter, a challenger of innocent magical escapism and spectacle with its cautionary and cynical take on the dangers and pitfalls of magic and falling in love with wonder. Vitally, its attested magic is never enough; that there’s always a need for more, and a consequential point of excess. It’s a common thread in fantasy lit from Sauron to Voldemort, but better realized in The Magician King than its predecessor.
Where Grossman collapsed his own argument for villainizing magic in The Magicians by making the enchanted Fillory the answer to a sober, central conflict of young adults yearning to find roles in the world, it’s Julia’s insatiable quest for power as an unsanctioned hedge witch in The Magician King that truly actualizes Grossman’s assessment of magic. In essence, it’s all fun and games and making rainbow streaks in the air until someone gets raped by a murderous god with the head of a fox.
There could be a compelling argument for why Grossman should have scrapped Quentin as a character altogether and wrote Julia as the central heroine encountering the existence of magic. Her plight better accentuates the homage Grossman was hoping to attain in both novels, and is likely the only character worth caring about.
Quentin isn’t a hero—he’s a snobby and ungrateful brat whose self-absorbed narration filtered through his severe case of arrested development provokes frequent hope that some Fillorian beast or Brakebills chum will slap some sense or sensitivity into him, if only to redirect his attention away from himself. Although a put-upon hero is an essential theme of fantasy literature, the crucial piece missing from Quentin’s arc, particularly in the first book, is responsibility. It’s a lesson Grossman unceremoniously tries to shoehorn onto the page in a fit of making a statement in the novel’s final moments, more than likely as a precursor to yet another book. The only thing missing is a wizened old man with a long white beard lecturing him about his conduct. But, again, that’s likely for the next book.
Throughout, Quentin has remained a disaffected and unfeeling tabula rasa who needs a quest for keys less than he needs a personality and some empathy. Grossman has been too self-aware of the character type he’s trying to draw Quentin into—the average guy in over his head—that he undercuts his own reconstruction by never actually developing the character beyond his ennui and contempt for anybody more interesting than himself; in other words, everybody—animal, human, or otherwise.
Unlike Harry Potter, who was constantly tested and proved himself, there really isn’t a reason for the inert Quentin to be our hero of the books; nor most of the rest of the cast. They’re largely unremarkable and underwritten creations, and are Grossman’s biggest hindrance to a fully pleasurable engagement with the story.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot of meaty adventuring to be had in this outing that more than makes up for its exasperating protagonist. Fillory is more richly defined than before while the community of hedge witches lends the real world texture and depth; Brakebills, the magical college, unfortunately remains in a sterile vacuum. Tightly crafted with greater momentum as the characters rouse themselves to actively take charge of the mission at hand, there’s definitely foundation for at least one more Fillorian adventure from Grossman.