Monday, April 23, 2012

2011 – THE MAGICIAN KING by Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman (rather belatedly since he’s been a published novelist for a while) won last year’s Campbell for best new writer. A couple of years ago, I noted some fondness for Grossman’s The Magicians, but also commented on its lack of recognition among fantasy awards. I had read a couple of reviews that believed Grossman was mocking Potter fans or fantasy fans in general. With his rather reverent acceptance of the Campbell, his extensive writings on his love of fantasy, and with the tenor of this novel, I believe that myth has been dispelled, so I thought he might have a shot at a few nominations with this book. But, it seems that it was not to be.

This book returns to the surviving protagonists of The Magicians and looks in on their further adventures. I don’t want to spoil the first novel, but I will note that the story continues to revolve around Quentin Coldwater and his friends and that we do get more action in Grossman’s Narnia-pastiche of Fillory, which provided much of the best material in the first novel. The Magical Academy Brakebills makes an appearance, but not a large one. Interlaced with Quentin’s continuing adventures, we also learn of the education of his high school crush Julia, who had to learn her spells on the streets.

I did have a few complaints about the first book. It tended to revel in the melodrama and debauchery of college/post-grad life a little too much, and Quentin came off as especially self-involved and whiny. Grossman seems to have heard these complaints, or perhaps the story has just matured with his characters, but this novel works much better. There’s a lighter touch with the characters, and I found Quentin, especially, more relatable. Julia’s journey is rather dark, and I’m not sure that Grossman gives some of the worst scenes in her story the full weight they deserve. Her storyline does give structure to a novel that could have been fairly aimless though.

The biggest improvement is the sheer amount of fantastic details that Grossman packs into this book. The first novel was a little short on magic compared to something like Harry Potter, especially in the first half. Grossman’s fairy tale weirdness doesn’t quite make for the rigorous world-building that I’ve often demanded from the fantasy books I’ve read, but his ideas are so original and fun here that I didn’t mind at all.

Grade: A-

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