The Magician King by Lev Grossman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Most of the book had transformed into boilerplate fantasy adventure. If I had a nickel for every time that Quentin used his byline, "Let's go on a quest," I could probably afford a bean burrito at Taco Hell. He steamrolled everything and everyone in his path to get exactly what he wanted or what he believed to be a righteous cause, and except for a few casualties along the way, we, as readers, get to watch him be the the greatest casualty of his own adventure.
The last development somewhat redeemed the rest of his humdrum story, but honestly, I wished there were more dire consequences heaped upon him. He's only middling likeable. In fact, because the books are written pretty well, it just highlights just how much I can't gloss over Quentin's no sense of wonder. It's like he's just going through the motions no matter what he ends up doing, and he's one of the four freaking kings of a Narniaesque land. "Let's go on a quest!"
If the author is actually peering at us through the pages and showing us his true colors, then I'd be tempted to say he despises the genre, so it begs the question... why is he writing in it? It's technically good, after all, and it even shows some really clever and interesting jumps in characterization and development. Unfortunately, the plot keeps running afoul of that great mechanism in the sky being cranked by a great silvery being.
I keep thinking about that one line from the first book where Alice complained at Quentin that he was the only student in the school who truly believed in magic, despite the fact that all the actual practitioners performed magic daily. It always struck me as WRONG. Even if Quentin still believes in the sanctity of Narniaesque, I never once got the real feeling that he really loved the place. Not really. It was always a place to run to or lounge in or perform some great deed to justify his being such a useless wastrel. I submit that Alice was plain wrong. He is the antithesis of love.
On the other hand, Julia was probably one of the most delightful of characters in either novel, and I did get the feel of complete obsession and grasping joy surrounding the magic she had been denied, like an addict or a spurned lover. She's miserable throughout the novels, but at least she actually felt thirteen steps closer to grasping the love the Quentin was enveloped in but couldn't sense. She had real obstacles to overcome and paid a real price. If anything, she completely puts Quentin to shame in every single quantifiable way, and she lost her humanity, her mind, her self-respect, and her expectation of joy; and believe it or not, I think she got the better end of the deal.
I thoroughly loved every part of her backstory and eventually came to dread coming back to the "present". In the end, I wish the whole book had been Julia's. I'd probably have no problems giving this a full 5 stars, and happily. She was always the underdog as opposed to the privileged upper-class and world-weary idiot, and who really cares about the ennui of the disaffected rich, anyway?
Maybe this is just my middle-class upbringing and sensibilities coloring my reading, and perhaps I ought to drape a cigarette over my fingers and let my face go slack in absolute boredom and gush over how, finally, one fantasy writer has FINALLY captured the world-weary worldview of the privileged and elite, but no. It's not going to happen.
I'll keep reading through the third book because I've been promised that happy endings do eventually come to those who wait, and I do like all the characters enough to forgive most of their foibles. Usually, the big ideas can be enough to firmly root me to a series even if I'm pissed at the characters, and this one has enough ground that I'm satisfied. Seven keys was kinda hokey, but the eventual grand quest was all right, even if it kinda fizzled like a T S Eliot poem at the end.
Do I recommend? Well, I've read a lot of fantasy that is much worse than this, and most of my complaint stems from the misplaced hope that it can rise above the simmering hint of greatness. I keep looking for that spark that will send this into the sky. Maybe it will show up in the third novel. I don't know.
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