Lev Grossman: “The Magician King”

08/22/2011 § Leave a comment

I was all set to come out and confess that I grew up obsessed with fantasy novels, lost in the snows and seas of the Narnia series long before I understood anything about religious subtext, at home in the riddling intrigue-filled walls of Redwall, and even — if memory serves — a one-time dragon-rider on Pern. But I realized, while unpacking some of the many books I’d stored at my mother’s, that I didn’t really have anything to confess: I wasn’t ashamed of enjoying Tasslehoff Burrfoot, and, in fact, I took pride in owning the lesser-renowned (but far superior) Death’s Gate cycle. I was delighted to find that, while others had wasted their time with “mere” Choose Your Own Adventure books, I still had a mostly complete and thoroughly pencil-marked set of the US published Joe Dever Lone Wolf series (not to be confused with Lone Wolf and Cub). Sure, I was disappointed with the way each volume of The Wheel of Time and The Sword of Truth had given me less and less satisfaction — in fact, they were a part of the reason I stopped reading fantasy in the first place — but I’m looking forward to re-reading other series, like the out-of-print Chung Kuo (which, as a quick Google search reveals, is now actually being reprinted as a much revised and expanded twenty-book series; the same goes for Lone Wolf, so I guess I’m not the only fan going through their closet). Forget a confession; consider this a tell-all about the times I spent burrowing through every book R. A. Salvatore wrote (over the course of two weeks), or the way I convinced my junior high-school librarian to stock up on Piers Anthony’s non-Xanth books. (Incarnations of Immortality and the Adept series, in case the nerd alert weren’t flying high enough already.)

I’m not sure what got me started reading fantasy again, though I’m sure Gene Wolfe’s adult and intellectually complex novels prodded me in the right direction, as did my fond memories of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, a series I’d decided to stop reading in ’97 (until it was done, as I’d already been burned by the aforementioned Jordan). It most certainly wasn’t Harry Potter (I preferred His Dark Materials). But perhaps it was Lev Grossman’s 2009 novel, The Magicians, which took a distinctly grown-up tack — a dark, self-aware book that, while not particularly original (oh, The Books of Magic, you are sore missed), was at least a serious stab at how a more mature fantasy novel would read. Just as many comics had grown-up to accommodate their aging fans and collectors, particularly in the post-9/11 Marvel world spawned by Brian Michael Bendis’s crime-fiction roots, so too had fantasy. Yes, there had always been more heady stuff, Moorcock, for one. But this triggered the primal reason I’d started reading and writing fantasy (okay, well that I’m ashamed of) in the first place: out of a need to believe that there was magic in the world. (Virtual reality promised this second-life, well-explored in Tad William’s preposterous Otherland series, but that technology was far off: I was still on dial-up.) Grossman’s The Magicians was the sort of novel you could propose for a book club — and in fact, that’s how I came upon it.

I must admit, though, that in the following months of catching up on modern fantasy writers, including Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, and Daniel Abraham, I grew less impressed with what Grossman had originally established: he didn’t go far enough, and although the majority of his novel took place at a school for magic, where “laws” are taught that show the true foundations of a world- and lore-builder, it didn’t seem as logically defined (math be damned) as the sympathetic forces of The Name of the Wind (or even its shadow, Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series, the best of which was Academ’s Fury), and absolutely paled in comparison to the allomancy or “breath”-based magic that Sanderson was routinely inventing. There was enough kindling, in other words, to catch my interest, but the flames were only just building: I was delighted then to find that Grossman had expanded his work with a sequel, The Magician King, a book whose only real flaw is a slow-building introduction (that does little to catch up new readers) and the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger — one that may take the author (who is also a critic) years yet to write his way out of.

As I read through it, I couldn’t help but apply the rubrics that I’ve turned on so many short stories in the last year: in other words, to distill the techniques that I myself would most readily appropriate, were I ever to turn my hand (back) to fantasy. First and foremost, Grossman’s story takes the clever and suspenseful approach of an open-ended adventure, one that the would-be hero, Quentin (of Brooklyn, now one of four kings and queens in the magical realm of Fillory), is all too eager to undergo. Happy endings, as demonstrated most recently in Shrek: Happily 4 Ever After, are boring, and nobody really wants to simply spend the rest of their days ruling a peaceful kingdom. Rather than introducing a direct threat, or foreshadowing the dangerous demons in the background, Quentin and his old flame, Julia, head off on a magical boat, the Muntjac, which gives the story freedom without sacrificing momentum. (Wind in the sails and all that.)

For good measure, and narrative flair, Grossman also spends time cutting between the present “quest” and flashing back to the Sad Tale of how Julia wound up a Queen in Fillory, a masterful twist that serves two ends at once. First and foremost, it establishes Julia as a character — important, given how removed she is, and how fixated Quentin is on her. Second, it allows him to mirror the structure of the original novel, only this time, instead of the protagonist (Quentin) getting accepted to the magical academy (Brakebills), the story begins with his antagonist (Julia) being rejected, and of the torturous, depression-filled road she takes to finding magic on her own. It gives depth to the “real” world, and adds a sense of menace, too; it also fits nicely with another recurring plot, too, which involves the origins of the mysterious Neitherlands (which originally got our “heroes” to Fillory in The Magicians). Just as Quentin’s eagerness for adventure and magic brought him face to face with the demonic Martin Chatwin, so too does Julia’s slakeless thirst for the knowledge that was denied her wind up dooming those around her: she summons a god far less friendly than the one from Fillory, Ember.

Here’s the real difference for me between adult fantasy novels and the so-called “dark” young adult literature. In adult novels, the heroes make mistakes due to their own character flaws (arrogance is often the big one), and the monsters they face are often those of their own creation. For young adults, however, as in Harry Potter or the Hunger Game books, the hero is virtuous and good; they almost always make the right choice, and they quickly learn their lessons. It leaves less room for all the colors of character growth that come from actually making a mistake; for having to live and grow beyond that. In that right, The Magician King is both well-plotted and well-developed, and the cliffhanger forces our hero to pay an actual price for his actions — not a temporary death and resurrection, pretty a picture as that might be. (Consider the masterful adult fantasy film, Pan’s Labyrinth, which is filled with mistakes, sacrifices, and redemption — along with clever parallels, metaphors, and dark moralizing.)

The Magician King isn’t a perfect book: it covers too many characters, and doesn’t really do justice to the ancillary ones like Penny or Josh (older but not necessarily wiser versions of their Magicians-era appearance). Poppy and Bingle are interesting, but they’re remembered more for a single character trait — upbeat for her, professional for him — than for any growth, and fellow King and Queen Eliot and Janet are there more to move the plot along than to be characters. I understand the necessity for this, and yet the trend in fantasy is either to provide the perspectives and arcs of multiple characters (and to be fair, Grossman’s expanded from Quentin to Julia, too) or to write exceedingly long series that at least provide the illusion — through the passing of time and the requisite Big Events — of character growth. On the other hand, the characters he does focus on make huge leaps, particularly in an inventive voyage to the underworld, and there’s a ton of world building: not just of Fillory — which requires seven golden keys to wind it back up, and which, being flat, has a flip-side — but of Earth, where there are renegade and academic wizards, to say nothing of low-level spirits, high-powered dragons (who, incidentally, live in rivers), and long-dormant gods. The best fantasy novels can handle characters and worlds all at once; Grossman’s worked his way up from a B- to an engaging B+, and he’s fulfilled the cardinal rule of a series writer: I’m eager to find out what comes next.

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