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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Magician King

Lev Grossman

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To purchase The Magician King

Title: The Magician King
Author: Lev Grossman
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011
Length: 400 pages
Availability: The Magician King - US
The Magician King - UK
The Magician King - Canada
The Magician King - India

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Our Assessment:

B : well-written if somewhat too free-wheeling fantasy

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 28/8/2011 Dan Kois
Publishers Weekly . 25/7/2011 .
San Francisco Chronicle . 19/8/2011 Michael Berry
The Washington Post . 4/8/2011 Keith Donohue

  From the Reviews:
  • "All this is to say that Quentin’s escapades make up a perfectly serviceable hero’s journey, even if while reading of his adventures you find yourself wishing to rejoin Julia’s, whose more riveting story arrives every second chapter. Both tales, though, have at their heart an infatuation with the origins of magic, and both skitter appealingly on the border between sorcery, technology and theology." - Dan Kois, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Grossman's stylish sequel to The Magicians smoothly fuses adventure fantasy, magic realism, and mythic fiction. (...) Mainstream fiction and fantasy fans alike will find this fairy tale for adults rewarding." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The Magician King is a much more relaxed novel than its predecessor. There are plenty of plot complications, character moments and elaborate set pieces, but Grossman seems more confident in his storytelling this time, less concerned with cramming in every cool thing he can think of. (...) Grossman has devised an enchanted milieu brimming with possibility, and his sly authorial voice gives it a literary lift that positions The Magician King well above the standard fantasy fare." - Michael Berry, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The Magician King is a dark and disturbing book on many levels. Some readers will be taken aback by its theological undercurrents, the mythos beneath its logos. (...) Grossman’s third-person narration closely echoes the inner lives of his characters, but after a while, the constant swearing empties the language as readily as a cliche. The style comes across as fronting, trying to be cool, but that point has already been made elsewhere and better." - Keith Donohue, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Magician King is a sequel to The Magicians, and finds Quentin and his buddies Julia, Janet, and Eliot living contentedly ever after in the alternate reality of Fillory, the Narnia-like land familiar from a series of children's books that turned out not be so fictional after all. Yes, Quentin and his friends -- trained, except for Julia, at a school called Brakebills in the arts of magic -- had established themselves as "kings and queens of a magic utopia", Fillory, and now led lives of enjoyable comfort in this fantasy-land. After a few years of this Quentin, however, is beginning to get a bit bored -- "there just wasn't much actual work to do" as king --, and now he's longing for a bit of adventure -- perhaps some good questing. Fillory seems to offer few opportunities for that, but if one looks hard enough .....
       Eliot mentions that the inhabitants of the farthest reaches of Fillory -- those on the very distant Outer Island -- haven't paid their taxes in a while, and Quentin figures that's as good an excuse as any to head off looking for adventure, and he and Julia eventually set sail. Naturally, they get more than they bargained for, setting off (and finding themselves in the middle of) quite a chain of events and quests.
       Aside from the chapters on the present-day (mis)adventures of the Fillorian kings and queens, the narrative also repeatedly turns back to tell the story of Julia's magical apprenticeship, slowly parceling it out over the course of the novel. Unlike the others, she did not get into Brakebills, but she knew she was missing something and was determined to figure it out; obviously she had the stuff, it was just a matter of learning all the proper techniques and methods. So, while The Magicians followed the training of Quentin and his cohorts at tony Brakebills, The Magician King relates the much more arduous route Julia took to master magic; this is an entertaining story -- quest tale and magician-education in one -- but a bit of an odd fit in this volume (and a slightly annoying interruption of the present-day tale). The two storylines do eventually dovetail, in a way, but although Grossman fleshes out the Julia-in-training story, for the longest time it feels like something of an afterthought or distraction -- a part of the Fillorian story he should have tucked into the first volume -- or presented as a stand-alone -- but, since he forgot, now forces into the second.
       Fillory is a separate reality, and there are limited means of getting from there to any other reality -- such as the world as we know it. A magic button does the trick, but the Brakebills-gang don't have that any longer; nevertheless, some manage -- rather inadvertently -- to make their way through suddenly-available portals back to earthbound reality (and other, less pleasant destinations); problematically, these generally threaten to be one-way trips.
       Over the course of the novel there's a considerable bit of travel-in-reality (or rather: realities) -- with the obligatory (but completely superfluous) visit to the old alma mater, Brakebills -- and lots of worrying about how the hell to get back to Fillory (which is where the kings and queens do, after all, belong).
       Things get more complicated when it turns out that things aren't quite right in Fillory any longer: something has been set in motion that unsettles this alter-reality, and threatens it (and more). So the Brakebills-gang -- plus an outsider along for the ride -- set out to set things right. Quentin finally has his quest to go on -- and the stakes are huge.
       Still, it takes a while for them to figure out what they're even after -- but then that's how questing works:

You lit out into the wilderness at random, and if your state of mind, or maybe it was your soul, was correct, then adventure would find you through the natural course of events. It was like free association -- there were no wrong answers. It worked as long as you weren't trying too hard.
       While there were hints of it early in the story, it takes quite a while before they figure out what exactly they should be looking for (and even longer to understand why). Eventually Quentin is told:
Fillory has need of gods, and kings, and queens, and those it has. But it has need of a hero too. And it has need of the Seven Keys.
       Quentin remains eager to play at being hero, so he's on board with that; as to the Seven Keys -- well, Grossman doesn't bother much with how most of them are collected, waiting until there's little left to find before focusing on that part of the story. Of course, when it comes to finding those last keys ... well, that's when everyone gets to show their mettle, and where worlds really get upended.
       Grossman juggles rather a lot in The Magician King. For one, there's the the former Brakebills' students' academic approach to magic, versus Julia' street-learned (and -tough) magic. As Julia tells Quentin:
"You think magic is what you learned at Brakebills. You have no idea what magic is."
       As it turns out, Julia is more than just a natural; though she serves her time as Fillorian royal too, she never quite fits in with the others, and it's not surprising that, along with the relatively hapless Quentin, she is a prime mover of events. As it turns out, her earthly magic-play -- what she got up to once she had earned her magic-stars and more -- also has to do with the current complications besetting Fillory and the magic-world -- but she's also better equipped than the others to play her role in setting things right.
       Grossman writes with confident ease, and The Magician King is a generally very entertaining read. What hobbles it is that Grossman only cares intermittently about universe-building: far too much of this story seems to be made up on the go. For all the rules of magic, Grossman seems far too willing just to make up new ones whenever it is convenient -- and it proves convenient far too often. Often, too, there's some caveat thrown in, generally after the fact -- so, for example:
     "I'll come back," Quentin said.
     "You can't. That's the rule. You can only come one time
       But that sort of thing is rarely mentioned in advance.
       Tossing up what seem like random hurdles -- and, just as often, ways out -- throughout the story, the adventure can't sustain the excitement that a quest-tale should, and so the story, as a whole, really isn't all that compelling: it's too clear all along that things will fall into relatively comfortable place, regardless of what the actors do. Muddled Quentin also isn't the most compelling hero -- though driven Julia at least is.
       Grossman does stuff enough intriguing and creative ideas into the fast-paced novel to easily sustain interest. Eventually bringing even religion in, he unfortunately does spread himself too thin, rarely able to delve deeply enough into any of the inventions and ideas. The chapters recounting Julia's path to magic are more focused, and since they offer a more convincingly goal-oriented story than the actual quest they all eventually wind up on these chapters are also the considerably stronger part of the novel, even as they are meant to be the secondary and supporting part of the bigger story.
       Grossman's writing impresses throughout; occasionally off-pitch, and with a bit too much hip banter, far more is hit than miss here, and he manages to keep things rolling almost effortlessly. There are the rare schlock missteps -- two characters hit the sheets, even though: "It was the wrong time, it wasn't appropriate, but maybe it was the only time it could have happened" -- and any scene with Quentin in it usually has a few wobbles, but on the whole this is clever, punchy writing that pulls the reader along (and quickly past the rougher patches).
       The Magician King is better than The Magicians, even though Grossman hasn't got the whole story-telling thing down yet: he's good at the telling, but not so strong on story. Even the final (of many) twists at the end feels more forced than poignant.
       When he gets to be a bit more patient with the development of his ideas and fantasy he should have some very fine books in him. The Magician King is certainly decent entertainment, but little more, falling still far short of the Fillory/Narnia/Harry Potter-type-worlds it aspires to.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 August 2011

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The Magician King: Reviews: Lev Grossman: Other books by Lev Grossman under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Lev Grossman was born in 1969. He writes for Time.

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© 2011 the complete review

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