The Magician King by Lev Grossman

The Magician King: A Novel Lev GrossmanSummary: A cynically nihilistic take on some of the most beloved fantasy books.

As much as I enjoy books stealing ideas and remaking stories (like Fuzzy Nation), Lev Grossman has soured me on the concept for a while.

I was not a big fan of the first book of this series, The Magicians.  I thought it was really well written and had some great ideas.  But I just did not like the characters.  But I still wanted to read the second book.  It was written so well, I figured the second would have to be better.

After having read it, I think this opening line from an Amazon review gets it exactly right.  “Joyless, dismal, and cynically nihilistic–that was the first novel in this series.”

This book I think is just as well written, but even more cynical.  The characters have not learned anything. At least in the first book they were teens and might have some justification for being self centered.  Now they are older.  They are kings and queens in a Narnia like world where they have everything they could ever want.  The economy is magical so everyone is prosperous.  There is very little fighting or disagreement. And there is even the occasional quest to go on.

But Quentin, the main character, is never happy.  In the last book he found everything he wanted, he was a magician, he had a wonderful girlfriend, he could get anything he wanted and he even found a way to Fillory, the setting of the series of magical books that he loved as a child.  And he threw it all away because he thought that the next thing might make him happier.  And it didn’t.  No surprise there.

In this book he is doing the same thing.  He has everything he could ever want, but it is not enough.  So he keeps risking things to get more.  And nothing is ever  satisfying for him.

The best part of the book was that it spent a lot of time on Julia’s back story.  Julia joined the last book right at the end.  She was a childhood friend of Quentin’s but she did not get into the magical school and instead learned magic on her own.

Hers is a story of depression, addiction, rejection of her family and pursuit of a goal as if nothing (including herself) matters.  It is one of the better written portrayals of depression that I have read.  But because it is Grossman, the story is cynical and lacks all hope.

Even the fantasy elements seemed missing in this book.  There is lot of actions, a war that includes dragons but it happens off the page.  There is a quest (pretty much exactly like the Voyage of the Dawn Treader) but it happens while Quentin is gone and is dismissed in a couple of sentences.  These powerful magicians seem to have almost forgotten that they can do magic in most of the book.

There is clearly a third book on the way because this book ended on a cliff hangers. But I would advice most people to just skip these first two books.  There is so little redeeming value in them that if you have not started I would say don’t.  If you have read the first one, wait until the third one is out to see if it is any good before reading the second.

I also want to note that this book continues to be full of language, sex and a lot of drinking.  There is also one graphic rape scene that came out of no where and I though added nothing to the story.  This is just a book I would encourage most people to stay away from.

The Magician King Purchase Links: Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

One Comment

I’ve read both of these as well, and I share the mixed feelings. I wrote this about book 1: “Dark and graphic, it’s a cynical take on magic and virtue–with a philosophical cop-out at the end that betrays Grossman’s uncertainty about the worldview he writes from.”

It’s like Grossman enjoys, loves, and wants to believe in the classic Narnia-type fantasy, but he can’t overcome his nihilism. The thing that bugged me the most about book 1 was that he essentially paid tribute to Narnia in all the Fillory storyline, but then ultimately mocked it. You’re right–they are well-written but philosophically disappointing.

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