The first book in this series, The Magicians, is one of my favorites--I really like fiction that’s about fandom, and I like fiction that addresses flaws in its own genre (like A Song of Ice and Fire; as mentioned it’s extremely boring when people don’t understand that’s what the series is doing). The Magicians fulfills both those categories. It’s about a sad, geeky kid, Quentin, who grows up obsessed with fantasy books and wishing magic was real. As an adult, he finds out it is real and patiently waits to get happy, but as thrilling adventures unfold before him Quentin remains as sad as he’s always been.
From my perspective The Magicians was less about the plot and more about Quentin’s inability to be touched by the plot, so the idea of a sequel seemed silly. Having read it, of course I had fun but I still don’t get what the point of it was--so now it’s time to criticize at length a book I wholeheartedly enjoyed.
For the entire first 100 pages of The Magician King, there isn’t even any plot--the book just describes Quentin’s effortful attempts to feel a sense of adventure after the “happy ending” of the first book. I started wondering if Grossman was planning to do some kind of concept art where he wrote a huge series of books about Quentin being bored and doing nothing. I would respect that. But then the plot started, such as it was.
Now there’s nothing really wrong with what happens in the book, except that it seems to be just for the purpose of taking up space. “Maybe that’s the point” okay. I could buy that with the flashbacks to Julia’s experiences with magic (these are interspersed every few chapters). In these flashbacks, Julia is always undergoing various trials that lead to her discovering that she has to undergo a bunch of other trials.
In a rare non-magic example, Julia is trying to join this message board for mentally ill geniuses, and in order to join it, she is required to solve super complex mathematical puzzles which reveal a phone number where a weird voice is reciting another complex mathematical puzzle in Latin and then she has to solve that and it tells her to go to a geocache in New Jersey which has another puzzle inside it and then that goes on for like 20 years. And all the Julia sections of the book are like this.
I’m not necessarily critical of this--it’s repetitive, but maybe Julia always has to be figuring something out even when it’s bad for her. Maybe it’s about a certain kind of person. But guess what, I don’t actually believe it was intended that way because of how the rest of the book is. So much of the book is spent on things that are totally pointless.
Deeper Spoiler Level
100 pages in, after trying to have adventures in a bunch of silly ways, Quentin accidentally transports himself and Julia back to Earth from Fillory (the Narnia stand-in where they’ve been living). Even though Quentin wasn’t enjoying Fillory that much, he is so upset about being on Earth where he isn’t a king and doesn’t have a giant bedroom. For the next 100-ish pages he and Julia try a lot of things to get back to Fillory. Then, after they give up, they get transported back to Fillory when they least expect it.
Why did this even happen? We just don’t know. Quentin and Julia accidentally bring two friends back to Fillory with them, but these characters don’t do anything except fulfill one very technical purpose in the last few pages. Was that the entire reason Quentin and Julia got stuck on Earth and spent so much time there? No, you were just trying to take up 100 pages, I guess.
Deepest Spoiler Level
Now, Quentin and his friends are on a quest to collect seven magic keys because someone told them to do it or something. Things happen. Then, Quentin and his new girlfriend accidentally end up getting sent to another world where they discover that the ability to use magic is going to be taken away from humans and also Fillory is going to collapse because it’s made of magic, and the seven magic keys can stop that from happening.
This leads to some funny parts, like when Quentin fusses about how it’s so unfair for magic to be taken away from humans because don’t the gods understand how much humans love being able to use magic? Then, Penny says that he’s going to take over the quest from Quentin because he’s more competent, and Quentin is very mad because “it’s my adventure” and that’s apparently more important than the quest actually succeeding. Then, in a few sentences, Quentin convinces Penny that it’s okay for Quentin to do the quest, even though a second ago Penny was convinced that it wasn’t okay. After spending five minutes learning about this, Quentin and his girlfriend are transported back to Fillory. It’s too bad something like this didn’t happen when Quentin and Julia were stuck on Earth.
I guess I don’t need to summarize the entire rest of the book, but it basically is the most forced thing ever. A bunch of really convenient things all happen out of nowhere just when Quentin needs them to happen. Ooh, remember at the beginning of the book when Quentin was nice to a little girl, and she made him a “passport?” Well, it’s good that happened because now a passport drawn with crayons by a 5-year-old is necessary to get Quentin into the underworld. (This would be okay in a Neil Gaiman book. It’s stupid in this book.)
Then at the end, after all the convenient things happen and Quentin has saved the world, Quentin gets 10 pieces of disappointing news all at once. He can’t go on an adventure to the other side of the world. He can’t be a king anymore. He can’t stay in Fillory. His friends from Earth aren’t going back to Earth--they’re staying in Fillory even though they constantly said that they didn’t want to be here and wanted to go back to Earth. Now, they really want to live in Fillory. Quentin is sad, but I bet he’s happy that this sad ending is going to distract the reader from how easy and convenient all the events of the book were!
For a long time, I thought Lev Grossman was really clever because he always explicitly describes Quentin’s feelings and motivations. “It’s conventionally bad writing,” I thought, “but it shows how Quentin is always overanalyzing himself and consciously telling himself what he’s feeling and what his motivations are. I bet he might even be in denial about what he’s really feeling.”
But later rather than sooner, I realized I was wrong. Grossman just actually writes like that. I’m not sure why I didn’t catch on sooner with lines like, “Sometimes Quentin couldn't believe that he'd lived through it all when Alice, the girl he loved, had died. It was hard to accept all the good things he had now, when Alice hadn’t lived to see them.” Ha ha ha.
But seriously, I had fun reading this book.
Best AV Club Comment On the Review of the Book
“Does he really need someone else to steal a car for him? Can't he fly?”--rock that uke