Monday, August 15, 2011

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Contains spoilers for The Magicians.

It may be good to be the king, but there are also some pretty big downsides.  Not least of which, a monarchical system degrades morality by making it a virtue to tell the king what he wants to hear rather than what may actually be useful to know.  Not to mention the fact that kings are expected to dispense justice while avoiding temptation to favor one faction or another, and there’s really no appeal from a king’s judgment.  Of course the downsides don’t show up much in fantasy.  The Pevensie siblings reign for 15 years in Narnia following The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, while dealing with exactly none of these issues.  Peter was High King, but apparently didn’t have to worry about his siblings usurping any of his authority.  They weren’t surrounded by scheming courtiers or evil counselors.  Despite the fact that Susan in particular received a lot of propositions from neighboring kings (and was somewhat receptive) and despite the importance of dynastic succession, there were no marriages.  Also, no children, not even illegitimate ones, as you might expect noblemen attempting to curry favor with their sovereigns by introducing them to their daughters, not to mention the daughters themselves taking matters into their own hands.  For that matter, despite knowing nothing of Narnia the Pevensies apparently manage to rule totally fairly and do not advantage any particular faction.  They avoid all this while still managing to engage in brutal military campaigns where they could easily be killed.  It would be easy to say that these are children’s books, but Lewis clearly knew why monarchies are so bad – look at the neighboring-but-one country of Calormen.  There you’ve got shifty viziers and young girls being married off against their will to creepy older but powerful dudes.  For that matter the king of Calormen is sufficiently worried about his oldest son’s ambition that he allows him to engage in a dubious military venture on the theory that success might get it out of his system and if he fails then there are other, less dangerous sons to replace him.

I’m not trying to pick on C.S. Lewis particularly here, but Fillory is heavily inspired by Narnia so it’s the obvious comparison.  There are plenty of novels which deal with the concept that even a good person can’t deal with monarchical power without becoming a slave to that power, but most fantasy novels, Narnia included, pretend that somehow good people can become good kings.  This in turn feeds the desire of many otherwise sane people to become kings.  And it’s perhaps that sort of desire that led Quentin Coldwater to cast aside his sinecure and go be the king of a fantasy realm.

I’ve written about The Magicians before here, since it was one of my surprise favorites of the past five years or so.  At the time I said it wasn’t entirely clear that a sequel was warranted, but here it is anyway.  I can’t say that I enjoyed The Magician King as much as The Magicians, but at the same time I’ll say that it’s probably the better written and more textually coherent of the two.  I certainly don’t begrudge it any time.

In terms of structure this is very much a sequel.  There’s something of an executive summary at relevant points, but characters do tend to just show up out of the blue.  I’ve read The Magicians recently and remembered who everyone was, but if it’s been a while or if you’ve never read it at all then some of the references to past events and to development of characters may fly by.

There were several ways that Grossman could have approached this story.  Since The Magicians was basically an examination of what more realistic people would do in a situation where a magical school actually existed, this one could have explored more realistic fantasy politics in its Narnia-esque land of Fillory.  Something like The Borgias or A Song of Ice and Fire, perhaps.  And actually this was the sort of book I was expecting and even thought was coming in the opening sequence, where Quentin and his fellow monarchs are out hunting a magical beast because it’s a nice change of pace from their usual schedule of feasting, drinking and making extremely minor edicts.  Fillory is a magical land that doesn’t need that much governance, as it turns out.  But the hunt doesn’t end up that great and they end up with an ominous and ambiguous prophecy out of the deal.  There’s something that might provide an adventure but they decide that it’s too dangerous and go back to the castle instead.  Quentin notes that he’s been putting on weight recently and starts to wonder if the kinging gig is really all it’s cracked up to be.  And at that point the real nature of the narrative kicks in, as Quentin decides that come hell or high water he’s going to have an adventure, and we get to follow along with him as he undergoes a very traditional hero’s journey.

It’s not a super ambitious adventure at first.  Eliot (the High King) points out in their council meeting that some flyspeck island out in the middle of nowhere hasn’t been paying their relatively nominal taxes in some time.  Since he’s straining at the bit to actually accomplish something Quentin volunteers to personally go collect the taxes and he volunteers Julia, one of the queens of Fillory, to come with him.  There’s really no pressing reason for him to do this, as even he will freely admit.  He also doesn’t have to hold a fighting tournament to choose the best swordsbeing in the realm to come on the journey, but he does that too (the winner is a somewhat depressive man with the unfortunate name of Bingle).  And since he’s the king he can have any ship of the Fillorian navy – making his ultimate decision on craft an exercise in royal prerogative.  This whole fitting-out process is the comic highlight of what is otherwise a fairly dark tale, and might have been my favorite part of the whole thing, especially when Eliot points out that funding the expedition is becoming far more expensive than simply ignoring the taxes altogether.  This plot should be familiar to you if you’ve ever read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Prince Caspian takes out a ship and goes on a quest that wasn’t strictly speaking necessary.  Like in that book they take along a talking animal, but in a subtle dig to the hyperactive Reepicheep they end up with a sloth who doesn’t really much care one way or the other about the trip.  Nonetheless they set off on their voyage and suffer from severe anticlimax, until the border guards suggest that maybe there is an interesting artifact just over the horizon somewhat.  Then things get pretty intense very quickly; it turns out that the fate of the world is at stake (or rather that it already was and everyone just now noticed.)

Unlike The Magicians, this isn’t solely Quentin’s story.  Interspersed with the main action is a study of the hedge witch queen Julia, starting just after she failed her exam to Brakebills.  When someone doesn’t make the grade they’re supposed to have a mind wipe, but in her case it doesn’t entirely take, and she realizes that she’s got two sets of memories of the afternoon.  Julia believes that she was wrongly denied admission, but the book suggests that she’s wrong about this – for one thing the desire to learn magic or at least about magic fractures her psyche straight across and she goes into the depths of major depression and possibly schizophrenia.  I don’t know what experiences Grossman has or hasn’t had, but her struggles with powerlessness in the face of the betrayal of her own mind is moving and form the emotional center of this novel for me.  In any case Brakebills appears to have detected her inherent fragility and decided that she wasn’t cut out for the magical life.

While Quentin was off getting his first rate magical education, Julia was slumming it in the fringe world of hedge magicians.  Brakebills graduates consider most of these folks to be charlatans and the best of them to be dilettantes, with good reason; the hedge magicians think that a Brakebills education makes you arrogant (probably correctly) and that they are just as good (very, very mistaken).  Quentin at one point observes that Julia is probably in trouble and that every time he wonders how much trouble he has to revise it upwards; and her story is indeed very strange and sad.  She does have actual magical abilities, after all, and she falls in with probably the most skilled and powerful of the non-Brakebills crowd.  They’re still no match for what we’ve seen Quentin and his friends to be capable of, however, and since they’re deprived of a lot of magical theory they end up dabbling into what can only be described as applied theology.  Julia herself questions whether this is such a great idea, but its efficacy may be determined by the simple fact that she’s the equal of Quentin in magical ability, something that shouldn’t even be possible given their training.  In any event her desires burn like a dark flame, and she doesn’t even know what she wants to achieve.  She’s warped and dangerous and more messed up than Quentin ever was.

In the first novel Quentin was a whiny dick.  He’s outgrown that somewhat and I found him to be finally likable here, but perhaps this may vary by the reader.  At a minimum he’s fundamentally decent, as especially illustrated in a well-crafted action sequence where he and his companions assault a fortress to recover a mystical artifact they need in order to complete their quest.  At this point Quentin lets it all hang out and reveals himself as a full-fledged sorcerer who is both great and terrible.  He can fly through the air dealing death with a word.  Fire won’t burn him, weapons won’t bite him, he can kill with direct spells or entropy or simply sucking all the air from around his enemies.  And yet it never occurs to him to do any of those things until someone actually stabs him in the neck.  He’s got incredible capacity for destruction and for evil but he simply never would use them for personal advantage.  Quentin is no longer an adolescent and he’s making grown-up decisions.  He did save the world in The Magicians but in that case he was the pawn in a game being played by Jane and Martin Chatwin, this time he’s making his own way.  This book could also have been about him having angst that being a king wasn't good, but it didn't take that approach at all.  He might, in a few years, have gotten to that point but he was trying to make the best of his situation and accomplish as much as he could.  A younger Quentin would have managed to screw up the job or at least complain about it to no end.

That’s not to say that The Magician King is without flaws.  I felt that the use (or non-use) of Janet was unfortunate.  She was somewhat responsible for the death of Quentin’s girlfriend and she’s also the most willing to abuse her personal authority based on what we know of her character and her issues from the first novel.  Eliot and Quentin mention this in passing a few times but it’s never really gone into; for that matter you really have to wonder how she and Quentin can possibly get along after all the events of The Magicians.  And it’s a little inexplicable that Quentin doesn’t stop and ask a few more questions before making bargains with supernatural agencies.  Perhaps he’s still overconfident in his abilities, but at the same time there’s a lot of examination of how little all of these people truly understand; in addition he’s repeatedly warned time and again that heroes pay personal costs and those costs can be high.  The structure of this novel also seems to railroad Quentin onto a very traditional path, there's nothing that unique about the adventure he has.  And the subject matter of this novel gets very intense, almost too much so given the somewhat informal nature of the writing style.

I would almost never bring this up but the first sentence really threw me off as well.  It is:

“Quentin rode a gray horse with white socks named Dauntless.”

My eighth grade teacher would have written in the margins, “why does it matter what the socks were named?”  Fortunately there isn’t a whole lot of this but Grossman’s style can occasionally dip into sloppiness if he’s not careful.

The Magicians was somewhat narratively disjointed and seemed like two or three stories that didn’t necessarily join together all that well.  This one is totally coherent but somehow lacks the adolescent charm and some of the magic that the first novel had.  Also, while The Magicians ended with a perfectly workable sequel hook it would have worked fine without one.  The Magician King essentially ensures another sequel with its structure.  Still, I wouldn’t mind spending a little more time with Quentin Coldwater and I just hope he continues to grow up.

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