Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
One of the best parts of any fantasy series, for me, is when the author finally explicates the way in which magic works in his or her universe. Is it spell-based? Song-based? Dance-fight-based? Sometimes this happens right away, almost as soon as the main character discovers he or she is a wizard. Sometimes it unfolds gradually, as the characters become more familiar with their powers. But the diversity of magical systems is one of the most captivating parts of the fantasy genre. A fascinating system of magic can be the difference between a novel that’s merely run-of-the-mill and one that is bursting with creativity and high-stakes adventure. A poorly-conceived, derivative conception of magic can doom a novel to mediocrity. With magic, it’s not enough simply to have it or to use it—there have to be rules, consequences, and of course, origin myths.
I remain ambivalent towards Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. It was predictable and a little too trite, lacking something of substance beneath what is otherwise a very careful and competent deconstruction of fantasy. It is very much a product of its time, enabled by the high level of awareness about fantasy present in pop culture thanks to books like Harry Potter. With all of the hype it has garnered, it became easy to point out its many flaws—but if we’re being honest, it was also kind of fun at times. So without too many expectations or high hopes, I decided I would read The Magician King.
The origins of magic in the multiverse are a subject of speculation in The Magicians. Grossman deigns to make this central to the story of The Magician King, and I loved it. His idea that magicians are to the universe as hackers are to computers is almost intoxicating in the way it spiritually connects fantasy to the almost magical depictions of hacking common in cyberpunk—i.e., Neuromancer. More broadly, it’s the type of story that recurs across cultures and across history: magic, technology, fire … these are things humans obtained illicitly, behind the backs of the gods, things we are not supposed to have and should not be using. And what happens when the gods decide to take it back?
Quentin and his comrades stumble on to this conundrum when Quentin goes looking for trouble. He’s not satisfied living the good life as a King of Fillory; he needs adventure. He needs to be the hero. Quentin gets his wish—in the “be careful what you wish for” mode—and more. After embarking on what is supposed to be a simple mission to collect some taxes, he decides to play with a magic key, and ends up stranded back on Earth, with Julia. As they search for a way to return to Fillory—because on Earth they are just a couple of high-functioning screw-ups, not even fit for proper magical company—Grossman begins to fill in the gaps in Julia’s backstory. This was something I complained about in my review of The Magicians, and I’m glad to see Grossman listened! Although he doesn’t quite address how Julia finally meets up with Eliot, Janet, and Josh, he adequately addresses how she went from failing the Brakebills entrance exam to teaching herself magic on the streets.
Julia’s story is by far the best parts of the narrative. Quentin’s hipster-like commitment to callous apathy and annoyance with everything cannot hold a candle to Julia’s tale of dragging herself up from the most basic whiffs of magic to the power-levelling search for apotheosis that proves to be her ultimate destination. The quirk by which she manages to retain some of her memories of the existence of both Brakebills and magic effectively ruins her chances of living a normal life, and Julia throws herself into finding evidence of magic in the wild. She stumbles onto the street scene and begins building her cred. Ultimately, this gets her noticed by a group that uses the street scene as a way of looking for promising magical talent. Having mastered what they deem are all the basic, fundamental skills, they are now looking for the next level—for a bigger “power source” that will elevate their abilities beyond anything they can presently dream of doing.
Grossman, like many authors before him, likens magic to a powerful drug. It is, for Julia, an addiction that destroys her old self. She almost manages to get away from it, and I kind of hate myself for being glad she didn’t (because then there would be no story). Now, along with her group of magic-junkie friends, she is searching for the next big hit, something that will give her a really great high. And like some of the more educated and sophisticated drug addicts, Julia and her friends are doing it in a highly scientific manner, surveying history, myth, and legend for hints at what lies beyond the magic humanity has thus far been able to tap.
I love Julia’s arc. It probably helps that, unlike Quentin, she doesn’t get everything handed to her and then immediately finds it somehow inadequate or unsatisfactory. Julia is always looking for more, always learning, and Grossman conveys that thirst for knowledge as something she fears losing. Just prior to meeting her like-minded group of magicians, she fears she is about to plateau. Instead, she helps guide the group into a line of inquiry that yields their prize—and their deaths.
I’m studding this review with spoilers, so hopefully you aren’t regretting ignoring that little warning if you haven’t read this book! I decided that I definitely want to talk about two very spoiler-ish parts of this book, though: the origin of magic, and Julia’s rape. The latter is the culmination of Julia’s story of how she went from Brakebills discard to powerful hedge-witch. My initial reaction, as I was reading the scene in which Reynard the Fox proceeds to brutally murder all of her comrades (minus Asmodeus), was, “Oh, sure, gratuitous rape. Because clearly that’s the worst possible thing that could happen to Julia at this point, so why not throw it in?” (TVTropes). It grated. Upon further reflection, though, the rape is not just a gratuitous way to further scar Julia. It’s all about the latent cultural symbolism in that scene: they have mined the local culture for clues as to how to summon this goddess, and they end up with a demonic demigod in the visage of a fox instead. When Julia exchanges her life for Asmodeus’, she essentially makes a deal with the devil. Traditionally, witches sealed such bargains with … yeah.
So Grossman went there. The fact that there is a reason for its inclusion doesn’t make it any less grating. And it still kind of feels out of place, just like Julia’s sudden deus ex apotheosis toward the end of the book feels out of place. I’m still not sure why Reynard could or would convey upon her this promise of becoming the daughter of the goddess. Moreover, beyond the flashbacks that examine Julia’s backstory, we do not get much access to Julia’s perspective in the present. She remains as frustratingly opaque as the rest of the characters, leaving us only with Quentin as company—and he’s not much fun at all. He’s an eighty-year-old trapped in a twenty-something’s body, with magic powers and a serious desire to play hero regardless of the consequences.
If Julia’s story is compelling and evocative, then Quentin’s is almost the opposite. It’s rushed and still feels like it’s stuffed with filler. It makes little sense, and mostly consists of shoutouts to characters from The Magicians: Dean Fogg, Josh, Penny, etc. Quentin spends about half the time whining and the other half demanding, through some bizarre sense of Fillorian entitlement, that he be handed the answers to everything (and a Coke). If I had to participate in some kind of fantasy quest and needed to choose a literary character to accompany me, I would not pick Quentin. We would have … differences … that probably wouldn’t be very productive. I’d go for Julia instead, or maybe Poppy. Though I don’t know what she sees in Quentin, and Grossman’s portrayal of her “exotic” Australian come-what-may attitude borders on yuppie-like, Poppy was a nice breath of fresh character in a novel that otherwise stagnates in its own gene pool.
There just aren’t that many new characters to be found here. It’s as if Grossman budgeted his entire novel and ran out of money for character development after spending all of it on Julia. Most are returning cast from The Magicians, and even they have tiny roles. The new characters who contribute to the plot are extremely minor and poorly-fleshed out (I’m talking about Benedict, Bingle, Abigail, etc.). And no one sticks around for long: Janet has a few scenes; Eliot pops in and out as required; Penny shows up for one scene that is interesting only for its exposition. For such an involved, quest-style story, The Magician King has more the feel of a stage play than of an epic summer blockbuster.
There are times when I almost wish I had reread The Magicians prior to reading this, though I’m sure that would have been a bad idea. I wish I remembered more about Penny, because that would probably help with the scene in which Quentin and Poppy encounter him as a new member of the Order that maintains the Neitherlands. Still, I love how Grossman floats this idea that free will erodes as one becomes more powerful:
“I don’t think they can change their minds. When you get to that level of power and knowledge and perfection, the question of what you should do next gets increasingly obvious. Everything is very rule-governed. All you can ever do in any given situation is the most gloriously perfect thing, and there’s only one of them. Finally there aren’t any choices left to make at all.”
“You’re saying the gods don’t have free will.”
“The power to make mistakes,” Penny said. “Only we have that. Mortals.”
This is an awesome, potent idea. However, I wish Grossman had gone on to unpack it further. So what if humans are using magic? Why should the gods care that we hacked the system? What’s so important about the multiverse? Maybe it seems obvious to the gods that shutting down the loophole that makes magic possible is the only thing to do … but it’s not obvious to me. I guess it’s not necessary to know, strictly speaking, for the plot to work. But it would have satisfied my curiosity!
Grossman’s invocation of the gods as the behind-the-scenes antagonists of The Magician King is electrifying. He confirms the origin of magic, and Dean Fogg’s speculation that magic is not something humans are meant to have, and not only does that drive the plot for this novel, but it opens the door to so many other questions. Indeed, The Magician King begs for a sequel even more than The Magicians did: Grossman pulls back the curtain just enough to entice with a glimpse at the possibilities beyond before dropping it back into place and escorting us off the premises. There’s so much potential here—it worries me, because I’m not sure Grossman is going to be able to deliver something really great with the substandard cast of characters he has so far constructed! But it’s enough, for now, to keep me reading.
Also, Quentin gets totally screwed at the end by finally getting to be a hero and pay the price. I’m OK with that.