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The Magician King - Lev Grossman

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Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Magician King - Lev Grossman

Warning: I have never taken a comparative literature course.  This are merely my musings about a novel I very much enjoyed beyond the story.  It's quite possible I have completely missed Grossman's point.  It's also possible I'm full of shit and committing intellectual masturbation.  Whatever - I was bored.

To deconstruct something, literally, means to take it apart. In a literary sense, to deconstruct something means to take apart the structure and expose the assumption that things have a fixed reference point beyond themselves.  I am of the opinion that The Magicians is a deconstruction of the young adult fantasy novel (almost, I'll come back to this later).  It strips down each of the components that represent the genre, exposes them, knocks them into unfamiliar shapes, and ultimately uses them to tell a narrative that's still familiar.  If Magicians is the beginnings of a deconstruction, than Lev Grossman's sequel, The Magician King, is a reconstruction of that same paradigm.

To anyone who's read Grossman's first novel, everything will be familiar.  Quentin is now a King of Fillory.  Along with his old friends from Brakebills (Eliot and Janet), he is joined by Julia - one of his closest friends from his days as a normal person, or as normal as Quentin gets.  It turns out ruling a magical kingdom gets rather boring and Quentin soon finds himself in search of a quest.  He sets off on a benign sea journey to an island called Outer to check up on their unpaid taxes.  Joined by Julia, the pair find themselves caught up in a larger war that sends them bouncing between worlds trying to save Fillory from destruction.

In many ways I think Magician King is the novel Magicians detractors wanted to read.  It doesn't have near the level of nihilism or self-loathing that's so present in the first novel.  Nor is it full of the boredom and minutia of learning magic at Brakesbills.  What results is something far more akin to the standard fantasy novel - there's a quest, a wrench gets thrown into it, and then ultimately the quest is resolved.  Characters undergo change and demonstrate growth concluding with some measure of closure for all of them.  What survives from the first novel is Grossman's tremendous prose, clever integration of modern culture, and warm vulnerable characters.

A major departure structurally, half the novel is told from a point of view other than Quentin's.  Julia's flashbacks detail her journey to becoming a magician on the "mean streets" and draw a juxtaposition to Quentin's rather posh education.  Since anyone reading Magician King should have read the first installment, being able to see what became of Julia will be like remembering a dream thought forgotten.  Her absence from the second half of Magicians was a glaring omission and Grossman's resurrection of the character works beautifully.  Even outside the flashback chapters where she is viewed only through Quentin's point of view, Julia shines as a character emerging onto the stage as Alice and Eliot did in the first novel.

Julia's story arc is primarily where Grossman begins his reconstruction.  The components of this narrative are in familiar shapes and move through a very linear process where she is identified, inducted, educated, and graduated from her learning phase only to move on and join a quest to save the world.  Sure she's a lot more Draco Malfoy than Hermione Granger and her education is more on par with what Harry might have expected if Snape taught all his classes, but the fundamental plot movements are that of a coming of age tale - albeit of someone in her early 20s.

Contrasting that throughout are Quentin's points of view from the present where he continues to lack direction or the ability to properly produce serotonin.  For a deconstruction to work (I'm coming back to it now), at least as I'm applying the term here, the disparate pieces that were exposed in Magicians have to ultimately come back together into a recognizable shape.  Otherwise, what's the point?  Through Julia and her growth as a character, Grossman pulls Quentin along by his bootstraps providing a completed arc that is recognizable as a young adult fantasy (again, there is an irony here given Quentin is closer to 25 than 15).

Now if that's all Magician King had going for it, it might be a successful bookend to Magicians, but it would be a pretty boring read.  Beyond the main story arc Grossman delves into cultural mythology frequently paying homage to and poking a little fun at European legend.  Many called Magicians Harry Potter for adults.  The comparison is hardly accurate, but if it were then this part of Magician King might be American Gods for teenagers.  Overlaying the themes of mythology and de/reconstructed YA fantasy, is the edge Grossman gives to everything he writes.  Removing all of the novels undertones, Grossman still leaves his readers with an adventure romp that can be enjoyed purely on surface value alone.

Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, Grossman's deftly applies modern culture to alleviate what is an oftentimes dark tale.  Sure he sometimes tries overly hard to cram in some hilarious references to an internet meme or incorporate a rap lyric such as "suckers walk, players ride."  But for the most part these references provide laugh out loud moments.

In my review of Magicians I said I wasn't sure it demanded a sequel.  I thought it stood on its own and adding to it would only weaken the original novel.  I feel simultaneously vindicated and chastened.  In many ways Magician King is a superior novel.  It has a more complete plot and works better as a narrative.  At the same time, it lacks some of the inherent charm that comes from tearing down and exposing long held conventions.  I still believe Magicians stands on its own as a piece of fiction.  That said, I also believe that Grossman's intended thought experiment isn't complete without the second verse.  What to do?

The truth is, the sequel is just as good Magicians.  For many it will be a more rewarding read and it would not surprise me if many who were turned off by the first novel will find a lot more to like in The Magician King.  But to me it will never approach The Magicians because of its audacity to challenge its readers.

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