The Magician King

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Quentin and Julia are King and Queen of Fillory, the Narnia-like magical world, but he’s bored. So he tries to go on a quest, and ends up back on Earth. The rest of the story is his journey back to Fillory and his defense of magic itself against the gods. Chapters alternate between Quentin’s story in the present and Julia’s story in the past, an account of her unconventional magical education.

I just love so many things about Grossman’s style. It’s rich with allusions to high and low culture. His metaphors often come from technology, comparing magicians and the cosmos to hackers and computers (he does cover tech for Time). An example: “uploading magical knowledge into her starving brain by the terabyte.” He’s always bringing the high-minded hero-on-a-quest rhetoric down to earth by using slang or a curse word, or making a comparison to sex, drugs, or something equally mundane. And when I love a book’s style, I’m always tempted to put lots of quotes into the review, so get ready.

Since I was on the lookout for it from the beginning, I noticed all kinds of metafictional asides and incidents. The self-awareness I loved so much about the first book was back in full force:

“There is Deeper Magic at work here, my child. Even the gods must bow to it. That is the way.”

“Oh, right. The Deeper Magic. I forgot about that.”

The Deeper Magic always seemed to come up when Ember didn’t feel like doing something, or needed to close a plot hole.

There are lots of conversations about the proper attitude to adopt when pursuing a quest. How much do you plan, and how much do you allow the universe to steer you?

“But find [the magic keys] and do what with them?” Poppy said.

“I suppose once we have them all they’ll tell us. Or perhaps we’ll know when we have them. Or perhaps we’ll never know. They might just take the keys and pat us on the behind and send us on our way. I don’t know. I’ve never done a quest before.”

“So…the journey is the arrival, kind of thing?” Josh said. “I hate that stuff. I’m an old-fashioned arrival-is-the-arrival kind of guy.”

“For what it’s worth, they told me the realm was in peril,” Eliot said.

Quentin wonders whether or not he can be happy in the ‘real world’ after life as a king of Fillory, and finds there are things on Earth he didn’t see or appreciate because he was so preoccupied with dreams of supposedly fictional places.

It was Quentin’s first time in England, and he was amazed. …it looked more like Fillory than he’d thought anywhere on Earth could. Even more than Venice. Why hadn’t anybody told him? Except of course, they had, and he hadn’t believed them. …

Maybe she was right, he hadn’t given this world enough credit. Zipping along the narrow highways and shady lanes of rural Cornwall, the four of them could have been regular people. civilians, and would they have been any less happy? Even without magic they had the grass and that blessed country solitude and the sun flickering past between the branches and the solace of an expensive car that somebody else was paying for. What kind of an asshole wouldn’t be satisfied with that? For the first time in his life Quentin seriously considered the idea that he could be happy without Fillory–not just resigned, but happy.

It sounded to me like the tug of war every true bookworm has felt in her soul: the appeal of glimmering worlds constructed by prose versus the dingy but real life we find ourselves in when we look up from a book. Do we spend our lives reading and forget to live? Do we abandon the rapture we’ve found in the pages of a novel, to focus instead on what’s tangible? Do we immerse ourselves in fairy worlds and ignore the everyday magic around us? Where does true happiness lie, in imagination or reality? For someone who’s still figuring this stuff out, reading about someone struggling with the same questions is touching and cathartic.

The scope of this story is much bigger than in The Magicians. Quentin goes back and forth between Fillory, Earth, the Neitherlands, and the underworld several times. The cosmology of Grossman’s universe is revealed, with religious implications. I’d definitely compare the series to His Dark Materials, and that’s a high compliment.

The ending is beautiful and tragic and heroic, in all the best ways. It seems inevitable, but it hurts in just the way that you want a good book to hurt. It also makes me long for the next in the series.

The Magician King is a book I wish I had written.

Beyond books…

This blog is a work in progress, an experiment, and I hope it’s getting better as time goes on and I write more. It’s only been three and a half months now, but I’m starting to feel both like I want to write things that don’t fit here and like I’m not writing enough. So I’m thinking of expanding the focus of this blog because I’d like to start writing about more than just books here. I feel like if I really want to do a good job on this blog I should be updating at least 4 times a week, and I just don’t finish books that quickly. So I need to open it up to other topics. I’m not sure about this move because I want the blog to have an overarching theme or topic, and the more I move away from books and book reviews, the more I fear it might become a piecemeal, random collection of writings, united only by the fact that I’m the one who wrote it.

However, conversations with a good friend about this issue revealed a potential unifying factor: my outlook on life itself is literary. I analyze my life like a literary critic analyzes a text. I’ve been doing this ever since I can remember having thoughts that went deeper than the surface of things; this impulse is probably what led me to begin keeping a journal when I was about 12. This point of view has predictable pitfalls, especially for a 12-year-old interpreting the behavior of a crush like a close reader interprets the behavior of a romantic lead character in a novel. Indifferent 13-year-old boys act more like Mr. Darcy than they know. I look for patterns where there are none, and overanalyze the particular words that people say and write in everyday communication.  This perspective is a challenging, self-confounding one because life doesn’t work like literature–there are no pat endings or neat subplots–but something in me says that it should. I have this impulse to analyze and re-analyze all past experience in the light of my newest experience, to shift meanings until it all makes sense in a coherent story of “my life” and “who I am.” My tendency to narrative-ize my life also sometimes keeps me from enjoying the present because of a relentless focus on a distant future happily-ever-after. Obviously, this is not necessarily an unambiguously good thing, but I firmly believe that this way of seeing the world is one of the things that make me who I am.

So hopefully if I use that mode of analysis, and stick to issues that have some significance, rather than writing about minutiae like my recipe for banana nut oatmeal or my addiction to an ipad game called Tiny Tower, the blog will be fun to read even for people who are not readers or who don’t share my taste in books. I have things to say about the world beyond books, and I’m hoping this becomes a good forum for saying them.

This might mean I should change the name of the blog, but as I said before, I’m open to that. I haven’t yet come up with any better ideas, though.

So, blogging beyond book reviews: yay or nay? Suggestions for topics or new blog titles?


Possession by A.S. Byatt

Possession is about a couple of young British academics in the 1980s who discover a set of love letters between two (fictional) Victorian poets. The novel tells the story of both the contemporary and 19th century lovers as the scholars investigate. Once the mystery of the letters begins to unravel, the book is hard to put down. It’s a long novel, and dense with language and big ideas, but the urgency of the mystery makes the pages fly by.

Christabel LaMotte, the Victorian lady poet, is by far the book’s most fascinating and mysterious character. I think of her as a slightly more outspoken and direct English version of reclusive Emily Dickinson. Some of her writing style, especially the dashes, elisions, and elaborate metaphors, remind me of Dickinson. She’s a protofeminist who talks about how “The best [response women writers] may hope is–oh, it is excellently done–for a woman” (197).  When she is pregnant out of wedlock, she refuses to play the role of “fallen woman,” holding herself aloof and snarking at a cousin who just wants to help. That attitude seemed startlingly modern to me.

The novel delves into ideas about how love takes away autonomy; both the 19th and 20th century couples are concerned with losing themselves in a relationship. It’s also about the way literature can be fuel for love: LaMotte and Ash fall in love through writing letters, and Maude and Roland through reading their letters. Another topic: interpretations and misinterpretations of literature. Uncovering the affair between LaMotte and Ash sheds new light on all their works, and shows some earlier interpretations–like the idea of LaMotte as a woman with exclusively homosexual desires–to be erroneous. It’s mind-boggling to extend that idea to all the millions of things we readers can never know about the texts we read and their authors, and how that partial information can lead us to make big mistakes in interpretation. 

Professor Cropper, the villain, is a bit of a caricature, an acquisitive American academic determined to buy England’s literary patrimony. Attempts to humanize him in the beginning of the novel, focusing on how he gave his life to the study of another man’s work, and therefore produced nothing original, leading to a pretty meaningless existence, arouse nothing but pity. Is pity a good emotion to feel for a villain? I’m not sure. Once you start to feel that way about him, he becomes virtually powerless, and you know he’ll lose. Having a villain is what gives some urgency to the quest to find the documents and solve the mystery, because the heroes have to gain the rights and publish before he does. And Cropper is the one who does the unthinkable–dig up a grave–to uncover the final piece of the puzzle. Without him, the story would be slower, more wandering, and with a less satisfying, if overly coincidental, ending.

The most impressive thing about the book is the way that Byatt wrote 19th-century-style poetry and prose and interspersed it with the more contemporary story. These sections really read like something that an author of that period might have written, and are dense and expressive enough that they would stand up well to scrutiny in a college lit classroom.

I really enjoyed Possession; it’s a book about readers’ relationships with the authors and texts they love. I guess that makes it meta and explains why it appeals to me. The title’s meaning is multifaceted, applying to ownership of documents, spiritual possession, self-possession, and relationships that possess one with desire, among other ideas. It’s a thinking book, but that doesn’t mean it’s all philosophizing. It’s also mystery and chase and poetry and love story.