Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Magician King

The Magician King, Lev Grossman, Viking, August 2011.

Today is the official release date of Lev Grossman's The Magician King, so what better day to finally get around to reviewing it? I was still undecided about The Magicians when I picked up the sequel, but after I finished The Magician King I loved them both. They aren't two books; they are two parts to a very satisfying whole.

The Magician King opens on Quentin as a jaded king of Fillory, much like the first book opened on Quentin as a jaded New York teenager. Only now he's more fashionable; he's all decked out in royal garb & the final standoff in The Magicians has left him with snow-white hair. But he's bored (What else is new, right?) & looking for adventure, which quickly finds him. A morning hunt takes a very ugly turn, leading Quentin & Julia to charter a sailing ship to fulfill an errand that takes them to the sheer edge of the world, as well as back to Chesterton, Massachusetts, where Quentin's parents live. At first Quentin's attitude is as aggravating as in book one. "I guess I'll take this awesome ship on an awesome quest. I have nothing better to do. Might as well go kill some time."  But this doesn't last long, thankfully.

What I really appreciate about this book is that Quentin & his comrades change. This didn't happen in the first book, but now, viewing them as two halves of a whole, I can see that they just needed a few extra hundred pages to grow up. Eliot & Janet soften, Quentin matures & learns to stand on his own two feet, & Julia becomes the woman she was always destined to be - which is easily the most badass thing that happens in the book.

Quentin tells half the story, but about every other chapter belongs to Julia, whose voice is angry, powerful, & compelling. We learn what she was up to while Quentin was attending Brakebills & gallivanting around Fillory in book one, & it's a gritty, urban, from-the-ground-up counterpart to Quentin's story of easy success. The dark hunger for magic, for an entry into Quentin's world, fuels Julia & comes close to destroying her. Her story really makes the book. 

The Magician King has it all: well-developed characters, beautiful description, wonderfully varied settings & circumstances, a quest. What is it about books about quests that makes them so awesome? Quentin & Julia are on a quest for the fabled seven golden keys of Fillory, with a fantastic supporting cast of characters (including a talking sloth named Abigail whom I just loved). When I was twelve, my favorite of Brian Jacques's Redwall books was Pearls of Lutra, about a quest for six pearls. My favorite Narnia book has always been The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, about a quest for the seven missing Narnian lords. & my favorite book of all time is Michael Ende's The Neverending Story - the most epic quest ever! - about a boy searching for the archetypal water of life & a way home. 

His nods to Dawn Treader & Narnia, by the way, are many, & I appreciated them very much. Some are subtle, like his use of the phrase "further up & further in" from The Last Battle, while others are more obvious. Grossman's world's end definitely calls to mind the world's end that Edmund, Lucy, Eustace, & Reepicheep discover in Dawn Treader - the pair of people, an old man & a young woman, guarding the door at the end of the world, for example. 

So okay, I'm a sucker for quests. But that also means I'm a harsh judge of quest stories, & Grossman wrote an amazing one. It's a pair of books I will reread over & over, rereadability being one of my marks of a really great fantasy. The ending of The Magician King (also a nod to C. S. Lewis's books) might frustrate some readers, but I thought it was perfect. All in all, a worthy addition to the fantasy canon.

Next up: Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt. 

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