08 April 2012

The Magicians & The Magician King by Lev Grossman

I read Lev Grossman's The Magicians and The Magician King in a whirlwind four (maybe five - can't remember) days.  Both were in the order of 400 pages.  It felt good to get lost in a book (or in this case books) again.

Full disclosure: having read both books so close together, I am reviewing them together, therefore there will be spoilers.  I doubt anyone actually reads this blog, but just in case, you have been warned.

People have compared Grossman's books to lots of things, and quite fairly, too: Harry Potter and Narnia being the most often cited examples, but I've also seen it compared to Wizard of Oz.  Strangely, though, nothing I've read has compared it to what it most made me thing of: Stephen King's The Dark Tower series.

A strange comparison, I admit.  After all, The Magicians starts out with disaffected, undiagnosed-bipolar Brooklyn teenager Quentin Coldwater being admitted to a school for magic.  It follows his education - like Harry Potter.  Follows him out of school, to a life of alcoholism and tedious hedonism in Manhattan, where he succeeds to thoroughly mess himself up before finally getting drawn into the magical world of Fillory - a world depicted in several novels for children, which he loved growing up and still did as an adult.  A world with so many parallels to Narnia as to seem, on the surface, like the most derivative fan-fiction.

And yet, it is not derivative.  What sets it apart from what came before is the same thing that sets apart The Dark Tower: its unforgiving realness, its thesis that even in fantasy good people are going to do bad things; that sometimes people don't learn from their mistakes; that douchebags and assholes sometimes get rewarded while nice people die; and that the power to have anything you want so often goes hand-in-hand with never finding happiness.

The Magician King follows this up with Quentin and friends as rulers of Fillory, but they have to, once more, undertake a Quest.  This time around, the narrative jumps around quite a bit, interweaving the story of Quentin's adventure with the past of his friend and fellow ruler, Julia - a girl he knew back in Brooklyn, before he went off to Brakebills (the magical school).  Julia had been tested, too, but didn't make it, and spent the next several years in a sort of personal hell, tormented by the memory of what might have been and an awareness that just beneath the surface of the mundane world lay another one, filled with wonder.

As Quentin learned in The Magicians, living in that world can have a terrible price, and Julia pays it full measure.

Perhaps the central thesis of both novels can be best summed up in the words of Ember, the ram-god of Fillory, an Aslan-like figure of imperturbable godliness.  Quentin, having completed his quest, complains that the hero gets the reward.  But Ember replies "The hero pays the price."

That's a sentiment with echoes of Tolkien as well.  Frodo tells Sam at the Gray Havens that sometimes one person has to give something up so that others can keep it.

I don't know if The Magician King was the end of Quentin's story.  I kind of hope it wasn't.  But if it was, I'm okay with that.  It was a satisfying, bittersweet ending, and it's okay to have those.  Much as I love books that end happily, it's okay when things don't.  That's real life.  And, as Quentin gradually learns, real life has its own magic, too, if only we can find it.

One thing, though.  In The Magicians, students at Brakebills are assigned a Discipline, a magical speciality.  Quentin's is left "undecided," since the faculty can't quite figure out what to make of him.  He makes sparks, which his teacher finds fascinating, but has no idea what to do with.  It's something frequently mentioned throughout both books: characters wonder what Quentin's Discipline is, but we haven't found out yet.  I really want to know.  Maybe there'll be a third book after all!

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Books: Just finished the above.  Don't know what's next.  I have a few Wine Spectators to catch up on first.

Bottles: Nothing lately.

Writing: About 20% done I think, maybe more, maybe less, but I'm plugging away at it and feeling good about it.

Guitar: Same exercises as last time.  Feeling more competent about "Shine On."