No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, March 19, 2012

2012/06: The Magician King -- Lev Grossman

"...I understand the appeal this sort of thing has for you, quests and King Arthur and all that. But that’s you. No offense, but it always seemed a bit like boy stuff to me. Sweaty and strenuous and just not very elegant, if you see what I mean. I didn’t need to be called to feel special, I felt special enough already. I’m clever, rich, and good-looking. I was perfectly happy where I was, deliquescing, atom by atom, amid a riot of luxury."
"Nicely put," Quentin said. Eliot must have mounted this set piece before.

The perils of the Kindle: when you read a book by an author you've never encountered before, and finish it craving more (NOW PLS), you can buy their other work instantly, no matter where you are or what time it is. I'm not quite why, having purchased The Magician King minutes after finishing The Magicians, it took me a month to actually read it. Desire to immerse myself and read from (virtual) cover to (virtual) cover? Fear of disappointment?

If the latter, I was wrong. It's possible that I like The Magician King even more than I liked The Magicians, not least because it picks up on the backstory of one of the other characters, Julia, who's considerably more likeable than Quentin.

Quentin, who has been one of the kings of Fillory (along with Elliot, Julia and Janet) for two years, still hasn't really figured out this happiness thing. Nor has he figured out Fillory, where magic is part of the ecosystem, there are no shortages, and the world might not even be round. Also, Elliot is far better at being a king than Quentin.

Then a magical beast, the Seeing Hare, appears; there's a death; and Elliot and Quentin -- with a loyal and devoted crew -- set out on a voyage to the 'wild magical tropics' of Fillory, in search of a key that will wind up the world. Or possibly the key has some other purpose. Nobody seems entirely sure.

Along the way Quentin has plenty of time to contemplate the nature of fairytales ("If they’d talked about it and figured things out it could have been a happy ending"), the role of the hero ("a matter of knowing your cues", "the hero gets the reward!", "the hero pays the price") and the lack of a soundtrack when he's performing awesome feats of magic.

Meanwhile, Julia's half of the narrative covers the events between failing the Brakebills entrance exam and appearing outside Quentin's window to invite him to be a king. What I love about Julia is that she's smart and proactive: she reacts quite differently to failure, depression and misfortune than does Quentin. For example, she figures out that there's a gap in her life, a glitch in her memory, by reading through a paper that her tutor's returned to her. "...she wanted to know who the lazy fucker was who wrote her paper on intentional communities for her and used Wikipedia as a source. Granted that the answer, 'the nefarious agents of a secret school for wizards in upstate New York,' was not a league-leadingly plausible answer to her question."

And Julia is driven. She loves magic, she's determined to do it, and she'll stop at nothing. Via the internet, she becomes part of an online community of magic-users, and encounters a group who want to invoke a deity they call 'Our Lady Underground'. (Grossman's excerpts from the group's message board are hilariously on the nail: "Asmodeus: I believe in Our Lady Underground and I believe that she will help us not because it is in her interest to do so or because she wants to eat your fucking foot or whatever but because she is KIND. pouncy u twat Asmodeus: this is not a transaction bitches this is about mercy. this is about forgiveness. this is about divine grace.")

The Magician King isn't simply a jazzed-up, grown-up Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It's an examination of friendship and loyalty and love; an inquisition into the logic and morality of fairytales; a cautionary tale about the uses and abuses of power; and, yes, an adventuresome quest that takes our heroes out of their comfort zones -- with Julia's parallel quest that takes both character and reader out of anything remotely comfortable, and yet offers some resolution.

There are fascinating glimpses of magic at work on Earth (Google Street View as a tool for creating long-distance magical portals; the Thames dragon as co-author of post-Syd Pink Floyd material), and the ending makes me crave the third, unwritten novel in the sequence. NOW PLS.

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