The Magician King et al.

I have a new draft blog post up today, discussing two potential first-rounders I saw as well as former Mets draft pick Teddy Stankiewicz. Also, the Kindle edition of the indispensable cookbook Ruhlman’s Twenty is just $3.03 right now.

* The Magicians, Lev Grossman’s fantasy novel that was also a parody of popular fantasy novels, is one of my favorite books of the last ten years for the way it weaves (largely affectionate) satire of Harry Potter, Narnia, and Tolkien into an original story. In that book, Quentin Coldwater, an ordinary teenager in New York City, goes through a familiar series of events, becomes a wizard, and ends up visiting the land of Fillory, which he always assumed was fictional. Crossing the chasm into the world of magic and into this alternate reality brings with it all sorts of unanticipated problems, with some tragic consequences along with the successes and adventure.

Grossman followed that book up with a sequel, The Magician King, which he intended to be part two of an eventual Magicians trilogy. It does suffer a little from Middle-Book Syndrome, but that didn’t bother me as much as the split narrative that gives a lot of attention to the back story of one of the secondary characters from the first book, Julia. Denied admission to the magic school, Brakebills, that accepted her friend Quentin, Julia went through a difficult period of anger and depression, along with intermittent attempts to learn magic on her own, a path that ultimately brought her great pain even as she succeeded.

That pairing – triumph and tragedy, elation and pain – underpins both of the books in the series so far, something Grossman spells out more explicitly this time around when Quentin, setting off on an inexplicable sailing expedition within Fillory that lands him back on Earth when that’s about the last thing he wants, is told that becoming a hero can include tremendous sacrifice. This quixotic mission, which Quentin can’t even fully explain to himself other than to say that he feels like he has to do it, takes Quentin, Julia, and their crew of Fillorians to the barely-known Outer Island, and eventually beyond it to After Island and eventually to the End of the World, all in search of a set of Golden Keys that will save the known universe from the wrath of the gods, apparently themselves magicians of a higher order (although Grossman leaves their true nature somewhat unclear, likely wishing to avoid delving too much into the metaphysical) who wish to end the use of magic by mortals.

Grossman created and developed a strong set of characters in the first book, much as J.K. Rowling did when setting up the universe of Harry Potter in the first book in that series. In The Magician King, however, the only development we get is Julia’s through her history, as none of the few new characters we encounter is around for long enough to get that kind of development. I think ultimately that’s what made this feel like the second book in the trilogy – the story was still compelling, just a touch less so than the first book’s, but the character development and growth is largely absent. Quentin’s progress is halting until the book’s climax, and the others are just along for the ride.

That climax might not sit well with readers who loved the first book, but I think Grossman made a wise choice in how he wrapped up the story, at least for now. A big part of the first book’s appeal to me was in how Grossman would create a situation that would feel familiar, often directly recalling something from one of those great fantasy series I mentioned above, but would subvert it through an unexpected or unorthodox resolution. The Magician King is no different – very little is expected here, as triumphs can turn into tragedies in the space of a few sentences. There was one specific aspect that I would have preferred to see Grossman omit, an act of sexual violence that was horrific not just as it was described but for the way the act thoroughly debased the character who was victimized. Rape and sexual assault are valid tools for the fiction writer but should only be deployed when absolutely necessary. This time it wasn’t.

I think The Magician King will stand much more strongly when we get the third book in the series, given how many open questions remained at the book’s conclusion. It isn’t as thin as The Two Towers or, crossing genres, The Empire Strikes Back, stories that seemed to exist primarily as bridges from part one to part three. This book could easily stand on its own if we didn’t have quite so much of the Julia sideline in it. If you enjoyed The Magicians, this is a must-read.

* I’ve also read two other books recently in series I’ve enjoyed, Jasper Fforde’s The Woman Who Died A Lot and Alan Bradley’s I Am Half-Sick of Shadows. Fforde’s book, the seventh in the Thursday Next series and likely the second-to-last as well, follows the literary detective, still recovering from the assassination attempt from book 5, reentering the workforce in a reduced role, even as Goliath Corporation is as determined as ever to figure out her secrets and probably kill her once they’re done with her. Their plans involve sending out synthetic Thursdays that look and sound like the real thing to try to con her friends and family into revealing confidential information. At the same time, the town of Swindon is grappling with news that the Almighty’s recent series of smitings will reach their town in a matter of days, a problem that Thursday’s polymath daughter, Tuesday, is trying desperately to solve. The story is clever, as always, but I have noticed over the last three books that they’re becoming much less funny. The old jokes are wearing off and Fforde seems to be struggling to replace them. Fforde’s site indicates we won’t get book eight, which I think will be the end of the series, until at least 2016.

* I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, the fourth book in the Flavia de Luce series, has nothing to do with MLB’s postseason, but is another murder mystery involving the world’s most precocious prepubescent amateur chemist and detective. This time around, the murder occurs at Buckshaw, the estate of Flavia’s father, as half the town is snowed in during a charity performance by members of the cast of a film being shot at the house that week. There’s a surprising lack of chemistry in the main story here, as Flavia largely figures it out by deduction and old-fashioned snooping, although we get far more insight into the character of Dogger and hints of thawing from Flavia’s sisters, which I hope will continue in the next book, Speaking from Among the Bones, just recently out in hardcover.


  1. Having read The Magicians, I felt strongly enough a need to know the outcome of the story, that I slipped straight into the sequel after finishing Game of Thrones series. I actually liked the sequel considerably more then the first book. Whereas The Magicians felt gimmicky and two dimensional, King, for me, resonated deeper and I more closely identified with the characters and felt more fully invested in the outcome.

    In King, the protagonist, Quentin, is fully ensconced as one to he quartet of kings/queens, in Fillory, a world that he longed for since reading a Narnia-esque series of fantasy children books in his own childhood. He has basically fulfilled his every dream and secret ambition of his young life.

    Quentin and his three colleagues, fellow magicians Elliot, Janet and Julia are growing fat and content in the castle, making daily appearances on the veranda to wave at the small folk. In the midst of this(and at the beginning of Kings), signs of trouble in their insular world appear. These disturbances serve as a reminder to Quentin of his own restlessness and he chooses a seemingly minor mission, to commence on a mini-adventure. The mission picks him up and catapults him into a series of harrowing adventures. In these adventures, Quentin is given the opportunity to become a “hero” and more importantly to grow up from the self indulgent child that he was.

    While Quentin becomes more completely flushed out as a character that the reader can enjoy, every other chapter is devoted to Julia. In the original book, Julia, Quentin and a third friend are best friends in high school; all three genius level, academic superstars isolated from others of their age. Quentin was convinced that he was in love with Julia, while she dated the third member of their clique.

    While Quentin passed the exam for magicians school at Brakebills, Julia failed. She then spends the next four years on a quest to learn magic, becoming increasingly obsessed, isolated and depressed. The Magician King details Julia’s four years, spent trying to learn magic without the benefit of a formal education. Eventually the two stories merge into one. One question that is never answered, however, is how Julia came to become a queen of Fillory, or how she even got there in the first place.

    Julia’s story is dark and real, an ice cold slap of reality compared to Quentin’s fantasy-like four years at Brakebills. As she wonders throughout the country, searching out magic safe houses, in hopes of increasing her knowledge. She utilizes bathroom hand jobs to gather intelligence on magic, the safe houses and anything to further her knowledge…like a crack addict looking for her next fix. Gradually the reader sees her losing herself.

    The Magician King borrows richly from mythology and religion. In Grossman’s magical world, gods are not portrayed as the symbol of good, that monotheism embraces. Instead, the gods have human characteristics of pettiness and wrath. In one scene, the rape of Persephone, by Hades is conjured up. In another, Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden is recalled.

    Grossman winks often at the reader and freely uses pop culture references, current events, literature(both old and new) as a means to bring the audience into his row of seats as the story unfolds. His tongue-in-cheek comedy is often hilarious and almost, but not quite, hints that the books should not be taken too seriously…almost begging not to become a cult series.

    A story of magic alone rings hollow. But in this sequel, characters are developed, and themes of maturation, goals, depression, the meaning of happiness all come into play, and surround the entertaining shoreline as it bounces back and forth between Julia’s past and the current quest of Quentin. This is an entertaining, thought provoking follow-up to The Magicians, one that could be perceived as being richer and more fully nuanced. I look forward to reading more of Grossman’s works.

  2. Speaking From Among the Bones actually does give the reader more insight into the characters surrounding Flavia, especially her father and her sisters, so it is well worth the read. The series, while still entertaining, was getting pretty stale in I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, so it was nice to see something new to the series, characters developed beyond Flavia. Hopefully it continues through the rest of the series.

  3. Keith,

    This is a follow-up to one of yesterday’s chat questions. Does your lack of interest in “Game of Thrones” extend to the novel series as well? If so, what have you heard that is unappealing about it? I have not read any of it yet, but based on your praise for Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series, etc., I would have thought that it was right in your wheelhouse.

    P.S. Your answer about what to do with boneless chicken breasts was classic. My wife and her family here in Taiwan feel exactly the same way. We do not have a dog however, so they feed most of it to me instead!

  4. I enjoyed the both the books and look forward to the third.

    In the chat yesterday, you were asked about pork chops. Today you recommend Ruhlman’s Twenty in which there is a great recipe for pan-fried pork chops. Just thought I’d mention it.

    Chicken breast is boring, but one dish I do quite like is Chicken a la Milanese. Flatten the breast, dredge in flour, egg, and bread crumbs, sautee and serve over a simple salad of arugula and roma tomatoes.

  5. I definitely thought The Magician King improved on The Magicians. It was a little less obsessed with the constant lack of satisfaction that The Magicians was, and as such it was, at least in the main plot, less fatiguing to read through. I also thought Julia’s backstory was fascinating, and the culmination of it was just devastating and powerful and then Quentin gets his own climactic comeuppance. Can’t wait for the next one. I can’t say I love each page of the books, but I like them both as a whole, and I’m hoping that by the time it’s all over Quentin learns to love the little things and stop constantly looking for The Next Big Thing.

  6. I’m just happy to see some of the books/authors I like the best in the same place! Just finished The Magician King (and must say that like other comments, I liked it better than the first and am hoping for more soon), have been reading Jasper Fforde for years, and also love the Flavia de Luce books.