The Magician King by Lev Grossman
Author: Lev Grossman
Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Fantasy / Magic / Venice)
Publisher/Publication Date: Viking Books (8/9/2011)
Source: The publisher
Did I finish?: I did, in one long evening.
One-sentence summary: Two magicians -- one formally schooled, one guerrilla trained -- quest to keep the magical universe from disappearing.
Do I like the cover?: I suppose, but like the cover to The Magicians, I don't think it exactly fits the novel.
First line: Quentin rode a gray horse with white socks named Dauntless.
Did... I like this book more than the first one?: YES. Briefly, running into Quentin was like seeing a friend's ex (I totally rolled my eyes) but I found him to be a changed man and I liked him more than I did.
Am... I going to pick up the third book?: YES. I'm especially interested to see where Grossman pushes the genre and the typical plots.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow, especially if you've read the first book.
Why did I get this book?: I had heard such good things about The Magicians I was eager to plunge in to the trilogy.
Review: I enjoyed this book more than The Magicians; this was more the novel I wanted when I started the trilogy. It feels less like a fanboy fantasy, although it still has echoes of other works; in this case, Gaiman's American Gods meets C.S. Lewis.
Unlike the first book, I found the hero Quentin to be far more tolerable (if not actually funny at moments), and I loved the way Grossman played with the English fantasy motif. What would it be like ruling faux-Narnia if you're an adult? Kind of boring. What is questing like when you've got more logic than a child? Kind of difficult. Grossman's writing style is marvelous and in this second book, he's far funnier. There were a handful of laugh-out-loud moments; Quentin's wry take on his life was refreshing. (He thankfully stopped taking himself so seriously.) There's more magical world-building in this novel, an exploration into the source of magic, and I found it interesting and weird in equal part.
For a good chunk of the novel, sex was absent, a development I welcomed -- until I realized that Grossman was using sex to show us how gritty the magic world can be. (In the first book, sex was freeing, or at least, provided pleasure.) Even though Quentin and his friends whined in the first book about being the outcasts and misfits, they had it easy, going to magic college and basking in their magical adult existence. Certainly, they faced painful challenges, but walked away with mere physical injuries. In this novel, Quentin's story is split with Julia's (a high school friend of his from the first book), and unlike most the other magicians, her school-of-hard-knocks magic education is replete with sexual degradation.
I don't mind darker themes and I don't mind a harder edge to my fantasy -- but I want it doled out in equal part. Sparing all the male magicians while making the women all victims is frustrating, and whatever pay out comes at the end never feels enough to make the violence okay. It's disappointing and frustrating and frankly, feels cheap.
This was a hard quibble to overcome, and I was about 80% done with the novel when I thought I might have to give up. But I finished, and I enjoyed the novel for what it was (my expectations were tempered), and I'm going to read the third book. Fans of the first book will want to pick this one up for sure but if you haven't read the first book, I'm not sure diving in to this one is the way to go. While some of the first book is recapped or referenced, much of what happened isn't, and references are made to people and places without explanation. Take a few long weekends to check out both books, then come back so we can chat -- I'm dying to discuss them!