The Magician King by Lev Grossman
Reviewed by William Mingin
20 April 2012
In The Magicians (2009), Lev Grossman gave us a serious fantasy that began in extrapolation from Harry Potter and Narnia, inhabiting it with believable, contemporary (young) adults. It was the kind of great idea that seems obvious once someone else has thought of it, an "Of course! This is perfect! Why didn't someone do this before?" In The Magician King Grossman carries on the story, delving deeper into his fantastic world, in a book as compulsively, pleasurably readable as the first, written with the same intelligence and imagination, but fuller, richer, and done with a surer touch.
In the first volume of what is shaping up into at least a three book series (I hesitate to say "trilogy"), a super bright misfit, Quentin Coldwater, was recruited into Brakebills, a secret college for magicians. In the realization of an impossible dream, life, which already seemed dreary and unhappy, suddenly took on meaning and purpose and savor—at least for a while. At the point where the "It's all I ever wanted" world of magic began to look threadbare and sad, as the life of adults often looks to people leaving college, Quentin and friends discovered the reality of the "fictional" land of Fillory, accessed via an interdimensional inbetween called the Neitherlands. For Fillory read "Narnia" or any other magical world you were captivated by as a child and longed to find real.
If Grossman's books were the cruder sort of allegory, the Neitherlands, whose many buildings seem to be libraries, would be the world of books, our entrée into the worlds of Imagination and Fantasy, and Fillory would be those worlds Made Real, but Grossman isn’t doing anything that simplistic. Neither is Fillory just another place, a real world like ours but in a different place and with different inhabitants or rules (elves, and "magic works," for instance). Fillory is of a different nature and quality from our reality. It is a "fictional" realm--but one that's just as real as our world.
With Fillory real, life once again took on meaning for Quentin. But part of it being real is that the struggles it calls for are difficult, its dangers really threaten, and actions there have real consequences, and even "reality"—i.e., dissatisfaction and unhappiness--can seep in. Grossman shows fantasy worlds constantly turning back into reality through the appearance of loss or ennui; in short, unhappiness. But the recurrent themes of these novels have less to do with the nature of fictional fantasy worlds and more to do with dealing with life itself, where actions have costs and consequences, and which threatens constantly to be emptied of joy and hope; or, without consequences, to be emptied of meaning. The constant fragility of happiness, or even satisfaction, plays an even greater role in The Magician King than The Magicians.
Though a real fantasy, Fillory is hard to get to and, once attained, like a lucid dream, or happiness, difficult to maintain, easy to lose. At the beginning of The Magician King it seems that Quentin has achieved the kind of static satisfaction that hardly seems possible this side of heaven, as one of the four royals of Fillory. In fact, it is impossible. Quentin feels enough dissatisfaction—and perhaps a sense of inauthenticity as king—to jump at the chance of an adventure that starts with the hunting of a magical hare. At first rather trumped up, the adventure develops into a quest, for seven magical keys noted in an old Fillorian legend, that turns out to be real and necessary, and to involve an imminent, external, mortal threat to both the Neitherlands and to Fillory.
One of the pleasing aspects of these books is that all this happens to people who are exceptional but completely believable contemporaries, not impossibly noble, high-sounding heroes, nor goody-goody children. As a school story, The Magicians had more to do with Donna Tartt's The Secret History (1992) than Harry Potter, and that level of high-maintenance, difficult, fractious character continues in this volume: brilliant, talented, but also lazy, hedonistic, somewhat feckless (for magicians), foul-mouthed, pleasure-loving, and difficult. They inhabit a magical world with the self-conscious, ironic, culturally overstimulated and to some degree exhausted minds of contemporary Americans. So their adventure starts off as an unserious messing around; they hunt the magical hare singing "Kill the Wabbit" to the tune of "Ride of the Valkyries." Quentin and his friends don't take anything really seriously, unless they have to. In this, they seem quintessentially American.
More tellingly, the way they take action, and the sorts of things that happen to them, reflect our common fate moving through life: they start off without much seriousness, as many of us do; they lack essential information, they don’t understand fully what they're involved in, they have to learn as they go by (sometimes costly) experience, and no matter what they have undergone, it sometimes still seems hard for them to conceive that there can be demands so severe, consequences so dire, and losses so dear as those they actually face. In these books even idle, inadvertent actions have serious consequences, and even a Fantasy can make wrenching demands. One of the main movements of the book is Quentin discovering what it means to really be a king and the hero of a Quest. Through inadvertent folly, Fillory is lost to him, regained, and then threatened again. In learning to be hero and king, he must show himself willing to lose everything.
Quentin's companion throughout, one of the four royals, is Julia, his pre-Brakebills friend and one-time unrequited love from The Magicians who, denied his chance to be schooled in magic, has had to seek it out on her own. Julia is the latest in a series of intense, brilliant, sometimes scary bluestockings that fascinate Grossman's protagonists, including Margaret in Codex (2004) and Alice in The Magicians. While she accompanies him on the quest in "real time," we pick up her back-story in alternating flashback chapters, through the many prices she paid to learn magic, to the events that have left her as she appears now: lacking something intrinsically human, isolated, suffering, lost. At first these chapters, harking back to another time, another story, and with a different protagonist, seem intrusive and clumsy, like something out of the Edgar Rice Burroughs's School of Alternating Chapters, and cause a kind of mental whiplash, a momentary disorientation. But Julia's story, which seems especially influenced by The Secret History (particularly its very minor fantasy element), is at least as interesting as the main plot and gradually ties back in not only to Julia's condition but to the quest for the keys. It gives the novel a much fuller, and more fully-plotted, feel than it would otherwise have. Julia's story, too, is beset with costs and consequences for even idle or ignorant actions, especially if tinged with hubris. Grossman’s universe is no more fair than the real one, and ignorance of its laws is no excuse.
If it sounds like this book is gloomy or a drag, though, it isn’t, any more than the Harry Potter books, which also feature loss and dire consequences. At a reading in January, Grossman said that The Magicians was the easiest thing he ever wrote and the first time he really enjoyed writing. Perhaps that translates into the sheer readability of these books. In any case, his writing is consistently literate and intelligent, yet fluid and easily devourable, his insights telling, his creativity bountiful but controlled. Moreover, something about his way with the material—either his particular flavor of the fantastic, or his casting of real-seeming, if extraordinary (and difficult) contemporaries, into a non-Christian Narnia-cum-Wonderland-cum Earthsea, seems new or, at least, different from anyone else's work.
The book isn’t perfect. One of the four royals of Fillory—Janet, a rather bitchy character from the first book—is simply dropped after the first few chapters, in a way that feels a bit amateurish, and another, Eliot, is gone for most of the book. And we're left with unanswered questions. A threat to magic and to Fillory is evoked and met, but the threat is left extant, as far as we know; Grossman doesn't really resolve it. Like Janet, those who pose it seem simply to be dropped.
An interesting extra-literary aspect of these books is that they look and feel and were published like literary novels or mainstream commercial fiction. But Grossman marks them (whether consciously or not) as both popular and solidly genre. Fillory bears thematic meaning, but is not a metaphor or an analogy used ironically or for some literary end extraneous to, and somehow senior to, the fantastic story. The fantasy is the story. That would ordinarily make this book solidly genre. Grossman also has the boldness to include some of the other tell-tales of genre fantasy: an explanation for the fantastic and a transition to it, magical implements and beings, even the casting of dramatic spells in magical battle—generally markers of something rather more downmarket, rather like the (slightly childish) maps included in these books. The maps seem calculated to épater the stuffy a bit—"f— 'em if they can’t take a joke." Grossman is playing with, and off of, genre fantasy, but in order to provide a new experience of genre fantasy, not to eschew it; these books are postmodern fiction, not metafiction.
Grossman's fantasies can be added to a roster of other books that, in their content, writing, and mode of publication, seem to be bridging the gap between literary and popular, commercial and genre fiction (whether fantasy, science fiction, or horror), including Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004) (one of Grossman's inspirations to write fantasy), Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (2007), and Chuck Palahniuk's Lullaby (2002). Whether such books will really bridge those gaps, and whether that's entirely a good thing, is beyond our scope here. But in any case, it's a good time to be reading.