Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Grown-up fantasy that is more than good versus evil (Books - The Magician King by Lev Grossman)
Since finishing Lev Grossman's dark, magical coming of age fantasy The Magicians almost exactly two years ago, I have been anticipating its sequel - The Magician King. The sequel shares the original's strong plotting, dark tone, and layer of ironic commentary on the fantasy form's popularity and most well-used devices. In the first book Quentin, a smart, less than popular boy, is trained at a magic school called Brakebills, eventually travels to Fillory, the land of his childhood fantasy, and is crowned king. When we meet him in the sequel, he lives the luxurious life of a king, but rather than being content with ruling the land of his dreams, he is bored and restless. He decides to go on a quest to far-off parts of his realm, making some unplanned for and surprising detours along the way. While the first volume focused on power, love, and fantasy, part two was about a sense of belonging and purpose, and ultimately the putting away of the utopian fantasies of childhood.
The Magician King possessed by an angry streak colored by one of its key characters - Julia, or should I say Queen Julia. Parallel to the account of King Quentin's escapade is the story of Julia's acquisition of magic skill and power, not in the exclusive prep school environment of Brakebills, but through sheer grit and determination and at great sacrifice. This part of the novel is still concerned with power. Here the milder ironic comments on the fantasy form of the first novel became snarky barbs. The prodigious use of contemporary diction like motherfucking, ass-wipe, and fuck-all give the narrative the feel of straining to be relevant and is worn less naturally than the precise and variegated diction of Grossman's English literature degree: kludgy, wuthering, kibitzed, sinecure, and dysthymic semiotician.
It also seemed as though Grossman, knowing what worked in the first novel, was feeling pressured to hit his marks again. The direct references to Dr. Who, Harry Potter, and Narnia, that felt like such clever commentary in The Magicians here felt self-conscious and made-for-tv-cute. But any self-consciousness is ultimately subsumed by Grossman's imagination. The book features the chracter of a talking sloth and an animated map the size of a room which, as one moves closer, adjusts its resolution to more and more detail - like something out of Borges. The wonders of Grossman's imagined worlds, both real and magical, are rendered with real skill at crafting addictive narrative. Finally, Grossman's books are tougher stuff than the good versus evil antics of Harry Potter because he makes grown-up fantasy out of the interior struggles of human beings. His central characters are ambitious, dissatisfied, hard-up, complacent, unsure of who they are, bored, exploitative - but they aren't evil - they're expressing the dark side of any young soul both as they crave fantasy and as they are compelled to move on from it. Revealing our inner narratives to us in all their ugliness and paradox is one of the roles of fiction. In accomplishing this with complexity while entertaining us on the surface, Grossman has created in The Magician King a strong novel of real value.