Monday, August 15, 2011

The Magician King

Last year I wrote, of Lev Grossman's novel The Magicians, which tells of a young man who discovers that magic is real and he's good at it, but that it doesn't make him a hero or make the world any more amenable to heroic quests:
The occasional frustrations in this otherwise very satisfying novel seem to come from Grossman's rejection of one of the now-standard characteristics of fantasy literature: the carefully balanced, multi-book story arc. It's as if, because there can be no truly heroic quest in The Magicians, because the world--even, or perhaps especially, the magic world--simply isn't like that, then the story itself can't be made to fit the same the heroic shape we're used to. The result is that portions of the novel feel compressed, bits of its impressively imaginative world-building more suggested than fully worked out. . . . A sequel apparently is in the works, and perhaps Grossman will flesh out some of these aspects in its pages, but within The Magicians itself I felt the lack.
That sequel, The Magician King, has arrived, and while it's quite good, it, too, feels as if it would have benefited from being expanded: some of the major characters from the first book, including Eliot and Janet, barely register in this one, making little impression even when they're present on the page; Brakebills, so important to Quentin and his friends in the first book, is given only a token appearance; and some key elements of the plot and the world Grossman's created (like the role of the Order in protecting the Neitherlands) are dispatched far too quickly.

In nearly all other respects, however, The Magician King is impressive, and a better book than The Magicians: more dramatic, more inventive, and similarly clear about its characters' failings of character while feeling less deliberate about foregrounding them. Its central quest is modeled on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but interwoven with the story of that sea journey is the story of Julia, a high school friend of Quentin, Grossman's protagonist. In The Magicians, Julia fails the Brakebills entrance exam, but the spell that routinely wipes the memories of failed applicants doesn't work, and the realization that magic exists--and she's been shut out of it--drives Julia to learn it on her own. By the end of that novel, she has reappeared as a "hedge witch" (Grossman's brilliant coinage for a self-taught magician [CORRECTION: As Biblibio points out in the comments, this is a common term, not Grossman's invention.]); in this book, we learn how she did it--and what she had to sacrifice along the way. It's a brutal, harrowing tale, and it shows Grossman at his best: watching Julia move through the subculture of samizdat magic is fascinating, and Grossman absolutely nails the combination of self-regard, self-satisfaction, power games, and pathologies that subcultures so often breed. The network of self-taught magicians is so well-conceived and fully realized that it seems almost plausible.

Julia's journey ends with a scene of violent destruction as surprising as it is frightening; as in the first book, Grossman is extremely good at conveying terror and unbridgeable imbalances of power. All books dealing with magic, it seems, ought to have a scene wherein mortals find themselves in over their heads, sparring with powers whose extent they've woefully, oh-too-humanly underestimated. If there is hidden power in the universe, there surely are also hidden Powers, and a fantasy that can convincingly depict them can be deliciously frightening.

I want to end with a brief note about the Brakebills exam itself. The test was one of the real highlights of The Magicians: Quentin, Julia, and a host of strangers are essentially plucked off the streets of ordinary life, magically shuttled to Brakebills, and told they are to stand an examination. As they're smart teens, that's far less odd than it seems--think back to your math nerd years and how often you were taken to some other school to match wits with strangers for vaguely spelled-out prizes. And Grossman's account of the test brings back the feeling of being a smart teen like nothing else I can remember reading: even when he's not sure of the point, Quentin takes each complicated math and language problem as a personal challenge, getting wholly wrapped up in them with the near-autistic intensity that, for me at least, is now only a memory. And what nerd wouldn't, with questions like this:
[T]he test gave him a passage from The Tempest, then asked him to make up a fake language, and then translate the Shakespeare into the made-up language. He was then asked questions about the grammar and orthography of his made-up language, and then--honestly, what was the point?--questions about the geography and culture and society of the made-up country where his made-up language was so fluently spoken. Then he had to translate the original passage from the fake language back into English, paying particular attention to any resulting distortions in grammar, word choice, and meaning. Seriously.
But why, then, did Julia fail? She's clearly intelligent, and she's gifted enough in magic to eventually make her way without instruction, so why did she not pass the test? In The Magician King we get the explanation. Whereas Quentin took the events of that day as much in his stride as would be humanly possible, because he'd always been expecting his drab life to suddenly change for the better,
Julia had been blindsided. She had never expected anything special to just happen to her. Her plan for life was to get out there and make special things happen, which was a much more sensible plan from a probability point of view, given how unlikely it was that anything as exciting as Brakebills would ever just fall into your lap. So when she got there she had the presence of mind to step back and make a full appraisal of exactly how weird it all was. She could have handled the math, God knew. She'd been in math classes with Quentin since they were ten years old, and anything he could do she could do just as well, backward and in high heels if necessary.

But she spent too much time looking around, trying to work it through, the implications of it. She didn't take it at face value the way Quentin did. The uppermost thought in her mind was, why are you all sitting here doing differential geometry and generally jumping through hoops when fundamental laws of thermodynamics and Newtonian physics are being broken left and right all around you? This shit was major. The test was the last of her priorities. It was the least interesting thing in the room.
Magic aside, that, too, is familiar, a risk I recall lurking at the verge of consciousness at every one of those teenage tests, from math contest to the SAT: if you let your glance slide to the bigger picture, you were sunk. It's one of the difficulties of teenage life that's hardest to recover as an adult. We tend to say that we want young people to think of the bigger picture (college, jobs), but we fail to realize that a successful teenage life, even strictly on the academic side, requires a fairly fundamental myopia, an ability to attend blindly to this task, that moment without lifting one's eyes to the horizon. Because if you do, those concerns, those requirements, even those achievements, will almost inevitably look small, partial, or even inconsequential . . . even as the years between you and adulthood remain just as substantial as ever.


  1. First of all, I don't think that the term "hedge witch" is a coinage of Grossman's. I've definitely seen the phrase in other books that much predated The Magicians... it's probably a well-known phrase.

    As for The Magician King itself, I find myself unsure whether or not to read it. I wasn't thrilled with The Magicians, neither with the writing nor the story itself. Aspects were quite nice, but overall... meh. With the buzz surrounding The Magician King (and your comparison to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, my favorite Narnia book), I'm wondering if maybe I shouldn't grit my teeth and see how Grossman may have improved his writing. Your assessment and observations make this sound worthwhile, but I'm still hesitant after my previous experience.

  2. Biblibio,
    Thanks for the correction on hedge witch--you're right: a quick Google search turns up plenty of examples. I'll correct the post.

    I don't remember The Voyage of the Dawn Treader beyond the basics of the plot, so I can't say whether a true fan would find Grossman's take on it good or bad. (Though Jenny Davidson, a fan, thought it was good.) I will say that there were a lot of things that bothered me about The Magicians even though, overall, I ended up being pleased with it: Grossman doesn't always do a good job of controlling his intentional tonal disjunction between the language of epic and the vulgarities of contemporary teens; there's awkwardness in the way that he manages the slow, intermittent emotional growth of his characters, so that at times I didn't fully buy their mistakes and bad decisions; at times he seems almost relentlessly focused on the unpleasant aspects of people, which is the common complaint of a naive reader but in this case is so extensive that it began to make me skeptical of his fundamental ability to assess and present human character.

    Yet the good points of the first book were so good that I found I ultimately was very glad I'd read it, and was excited for the sequel. To the extent that they remain present in the second book, they're significantly lessened; Julia's story, which is by far the best part of the two novels, is almost entirely free from them.

    These aren't perfect books, by any means, and they aren't the sort, like Tolkien or Dorothy Dunnett or T. H. White, to pick three off the top of my head, that I can imagine re-reading. But they're inventive and fun and surprising, and they contain some very dramatic scenes of terror, so I'm glad they're here.