'The Magician King': Harry Potter, Quentin Ain't

Lev Grossman crafts an exciting homage, but a profoundly unlikable protagonist stands in its way.

The Magician King

Publisher: Viking
Length: 416 pages
Author: Lev Grossman
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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