The Magician King, by Lev Grossman is the second book in the Magicians trilogy. So, how would I describe it?
Only slightly more optimistic. Not that that says much. In the first book, not much good happens. In this case, Quentin Coldwater—our stalwart hero—learns exactly what the hero of the story gets, absolutely nothing.
Compared to other trilogies I’ve read, The Magician King doesn’t suffer nearly as much from being the middle child as you’d expect. The story is self contained and wraps up fairly nicely at the end. In fact, if The Magician King had ended up being the end of a two part affair, I would have been satisfied with the ending. Far more than I enjoyed the actual ending to the trilogy.
Let’s start with the good.
The Magician King is anti-climactic. Though, in this case that’s not a bad thing. As we’ll see in book three, The Magician’s Land, Grossman can’t exactly write epic battle scenes. Instead, he ends the book by avoiding the major battle for the universe (between old gods and new gods and dragons, for the fate of magic and the boundary between worlds). This choice subverts the expectations by playing exactly on them. Readers expect to see big battles. Instead, Grossman focuses on the quest of Quentin and his friends, a far more personal journey.
I also enjoyed how in the end, Quentin doesn’t get what he wants. Because the hero wins the day but in the end, that sacrifice isn’t about the hero, so the hero won’t get his hearts desire. Kind of a “eat cake and have it too” sort of concept. But, Quentin, while bitter disappointed and almost broken, does realize that he can live with the consequences of his actions.
You can see the inspiration of Narnia, far more clearly in this equal than the first book, which plays with parallels and expectations of a Harry Potter generation. That’s one of the tricks that Grossman does. I won’t say cheap trick, because it’s actually fundamentally harder to incorporate into a story than one might expect. But referencing things in the books, real, tangible stories built along side worlds of fantasy that don’t exist, Fillory, in this case, provides and interesting dichotomy of influences.
As far as the story goes, I don’t like the split narrative structure. I suppose it’s cool to see Julia’s story and how she became a magician outside of the “proper schools” but it feels weak and unconnected to the rest of the tale, like it was shoehorned in to fill a thin plot. That says nothing of whether or not you care for that secondary story, some people will and others won’t. It just doesn’t feel connected.
The group of magicians Julia aligns herself with all seem petty and ignorant of the actual consequence of their actions, so when they almost cause the end of magic (a fact that becomes obvious with the subtle foreshadowing of Thor’s hammer striking down Surtur and causing Ragnarok) there’s no sympathy to be had. In the end, as I reader, I’m almost rooting for them to get killed off. But that’s a personal taste issue. Basically, I don’t think that parallel story line was handled very well. It’s awkward and seems to just exist to fill space and cause a problem the main characters have to fix. Though, as a friend once told me, all stories are a series of amazingly stupid coincidences you just have to accept in order for the story to happen.
The Magician King does suffer from a MAJOR problem, however. The same weakness that every book in this series shares and something that on more than one occasion, almost made me put the first book down until I just decided to get over it. Still, it deserves some articulation.
WARNING: What follows is not a review of The Magicians Trilogy story, but a criticism of how Grossman has chosen to write and narrate his tale. If you want to skip that, please move past the quoted portion and continue reading.
Grossman’s proclivity for “to be” verbs and weak grammar haunt the story, weakening otherwise powerful moments with the realization that they aren’t actually all that well told. But, at first, i couldn’t quite tell why it bothered me in this case more than in any other. Grossman isn’t the first person to abuse the power of “to be” verbs and he won’t be the last.
So, I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out why the “to be” verb issue in the Magician’s Trilogy bothers me so much. I think I’ve finally figured it out. It’s not that the “to be” verbs are a problem specifically—though, I think they are. It’s what they represent, in this particular case. An author, who based on context, is writing for adults (and not just adults, an educated audience) but his narrative capability doesn’t show any indication that that’s what he’s doing.
The constant use of to be verbs and simple sentence structure makes his books read like he’s writing for an unintelligent, uneducated audience, despite the pretense he’s established by making Brakesbills a college level magic academy and the pseudo deep scientific theory with parallel universes and particle string theory. Except, it’s all superficial, because while there’s a science to it—maybe? I’ve never actually gotten the sense that he’s built or established rules for the Fillory or Magicians universe—it really feels like he’s doing to make the characters appear smarter and not actually be smarter. He does this instead of actively writing to a higher, more educated standard, which is what he’s supposedly done by choosing this age range of characters, who are supposedly college level (best of the best kind of stuff) educated magicians, which is what he’s said, in the narrative, that he’s aiming for. There’s a rather severe contradiction in that.
And that’s why the “to be” verbs—though not technically poor (just lazy)—bother me so much. He hasn’t written to a level indicative of the characters he’s written. If you’re talking about Harry Potter and Narnia, simple sentence structure is fine. As an author, you’ve made the point very early on that you’re not writing for an older age range of 17 to 25 year old’s. (Though, that isn’t to say older readers can’t/won’t enjoy the story) If that’s the age range Grossman is shooting for, that’s a problem. It’s also not just the age range, as I’ve stated. It’s that he’s specifically chosen older characters who have a specific, college, elite education background. Since he’s chosen that very specifically, then he owes it to his readers to put forth that kind of writing. And he doesn’t.
It’s not that the “to be” verbs are impossible to get past, since the narrative pace is actually quite compelling. Indeed, the Magician King makes me want to keep reading and turning pages. In the end, that’s all a reader can ask of a book. There’s nothing in the world like a great narrative and story. Reading should be fun. I feel that’s something that a great many English classes in high school miss in their attempts to indoctrinate a new generation to Shakespeare and poetry.
Something that’s often forgotten, I feel, when people discuss books (and I’ll get into this idea more at a later date) is that we are allowed, as readers, to enjoy something even if it’s totally and completely horrible. Not every book we read must be 1984 or Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, both of which I loved and enjoyed. But, I can also read a story and acknowledge that while I may have enjoyed the story, I find it to have severe flaws.
So, the Magician King is a great read. I enjoy it. Read the entire book in one afternoon while lazing around on my bed. But the faults should be acknowledged too. If you love fantasy, go read this series.