Contented Reader

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The Magician King

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The Magician King

Lev Grossman


The first time I read The Magicians, I could see that it was something special. Grossman was taking the books I loved as a child and turning them inside out, deftly.  But I didn’t love it the first time.  There was something about it found difficult to completely take in.  I don’t know what it was.  It wasn’t more difficult reading than any other literary novel, certainly not something I had to struggle to understand, but I did find myself struggling to actually sit down and read it.  It didn’t call to me from my reading table, like some books do when I’m in the middle of them, to come and finish the story.  Instead, I had to make a choice to sit down and read a few more chapters.

The second time I read The Magicians, I found magic there I had missed on my first reading, and it was so much worth it.  I am so glad I gave the novel a second chance.  Grossman has to know how thoroughly he took the enchantments and disillusionments of my experience of growing up and gave them back to me in a form so rich with wisdom that I felt like he was reading my mind and understanding it better than I ever did.  And I suppose that, although my life seems special and unique to me, he was writing to emotional and psychological experiences of  growing from childhood to adulthood in love with fantasy books that are common to man of us.  I found wisdom, when I read The Magicians the second time.

And so I patiently waited for The Magician King to finally reach my name on the reserve list at the Cincinnati Public Library.  I had to wait a while, so I suspect that every nerd in Cincinnati was also on the list.  My inferiority complex assures me that the rest of them understood the first novel on first reading.

The title of The Magician King refers to Quentin, the narrator of The Magicians, who I last saw finished with his education at a school which is certainly not Hogwarts, flying out a window to return to the Narnia-like Kingdom of Fillory, to maybe reign as one of four kings and queens of that magical kingdom.  Just when disillusionment seemed too much, he grabbed a thread of hope and… the book ended.

So here’s Quentin again, settled and contented as a king of Fillory, with a magic horse and a pleasant quest and a beautiful, simple room in the tower of the castle, finally adjusted to life as a magician king.  Happy, more or less.

But despite the title and the first narrator, this book isn’t really about Quentin.  It’s more about Julia.  Remember Julia?  She was Quentin’s crush object in high school.  They both took the exam to go to Brakebills, the magical college, together, but when Quentin was accepted, Julia found herself back home with a disturbing hole in her memory.  I last saw her in Brooklyn, angry and bitter at being left behind, feeling like her destiny had been stolen.

In Fillory, Julia is different.  She has magical power now that is different from anything they teach at Brakebills, darker and wilder and more dangerous.  She is changed, herself, too- she has clearly paid a high price for the magic she wanted so badly.

So there are two stories in The Magician King.  There’s the story of a quest, on a ship which is not named Dawn Treader but might as well be, a quest to the islands at the edge of Fillory in search of seven golden keys.  And there’s the story, told in flashbacks, of how Julia learned her magic, and the price she paid for it.

Julia’s story is the story that was, for me, the point of this book.  Her anger, her pain, her darkness, her quest for magic, are so passionately real I feel like she is a real person.

It’s been kind of a not-so-great week for me.  I had far too many papers to grade, tests and essays and reading responses, and I’ve been feeling overtaxed and spread too thin.  Even my hour in the morning, stolen for reading, wasn’t giving me enough pleasure to compensate for the badly-mannered students in my ninth bell class.  And I was finding The Magician King, like its predecessor, to be a little bit of a slog on first reading.  But last night, and this morning, as I reached the conclusion of the book, Julia’s story become so powerful and horrifying and wonderful that I was glad I’d made the journey.

I think this is a book that I’m going to need to read twice in order to fully take it in, just like the first book.  And I think that, in six months or a year, when the first reading has had a chance to settle in a little bit, I’ll see The Magician King on a new paperbacks shelf somewhere, and read it again, and I predict that it, too, will repay richly on second reading the effort I spent on the first.

And now it’s time to go to work, and go over boring vocabulary lessons and even more boring tests, and deal with four seventh graders who are smarter than their parents and so haven’t yet realized that they aren’t smarter than all adults.  I will be bored and annoyed.  But somewhere in my brain, I’ll have a vision of Julia at the end of this book, which will be enough- just barely enough- to get me through the day.


Written by Contented Reader

October 28, 2011 at 7:13 am

Posted in Reviews


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