Tuesday, August 2, 2011

There Should be a Twelve Step Program for This

Magicians are like addicts. Or, they are, at least, in Lev Grossman's novels about magic. In the first of these, The Magicians (reviewed here on guyslitwire), Grossman introduces us to Quentin Coldwater, a kid with nearly everything--brains, talent, a hopeful future . . . All he needs to be happy, he thinks, is the love of one girl, Julia, a girl who most definitively does not love him. Then Quentin is invited to Brakebills, an exclusive, Hogwarts-style college where he can learn magic. He immediately forgets the girl. But becoming a magician doesn't ultimately help him either. He needs more. The more magic he learns, it seems, the more empty he feels. He keeps yearning, searching, messing up his life and the lives of those around him as he seeks to fill his emptiness.

In The Magician King, the sequel to The Magicians, Grossman ups the ante a little further. Quentin has become a powerful sorcerer and, with some of his friends from school, discovered a secret passage to another world. He's become one of the four kings and queens there and he now has magic and a castle and talking animals and an entire magical kingdom at his disposal. I'm not throwing out a huge spoiler to say that Quentin is still, somehow, unhappy. He decides that what he really needs is a quest, that by sailing off in search of something he can rekindle a spark he once felt for learning magic. It'll be a simple quest. He just needs to collect delinquent taxes from a distant island. But maybe it will be enough.

His quest, unfortunately, takes him exactly where de does not want to be. It ejects him from the magical world and dumps him in his parents front yard in suburban Massachusetts. Accompanying him on his quest is Julia, the girl he forgot about in The Magicians, who, having been rejected by Brakebills in the first book, made her own way learning sorcery. Julia is even less excited than Quentin about being returned to Earth and together they must find their way back.

Half of The Magician King is told from Julia's point of view, relating the story left out of the first book, of how she learned magic by combing the internet and seeking out fellow hopefuls and sometimes doing unsavory things in exchange for arcane knowledge. It chronicles how she painfully abandoned her family, gave up on her health and chucked all of her life's goals in her search to gain more magical knowledge and power. In short, she became a magic addict.

Despite its addiction-related themes, the book is not as dark as it sounds. For one, it's filled with even more witty characters than in the first, people who leave you feeling snobbishly smart when you get the references they make and secretly itching to look up the ones you don't ("What a crappy landing party," one of the characters grumbles as they set foot on an uncharted island, "not a red shirt among us.") Grossman has a great deal of fun in this sequel with talking animals, misplaced nymphs, nature spirits, an obsessed magical-object collector who happens to be a river dragon, and clever ways of slipping from reality to magical worlds. Later in the story there's some kick-ass magical battling as well.

Grossman even makes you hope, against all odds, that Quentin, and with him Julia, will finally make progress in their existential inner quests, find some peace with themselves and give up once for all the self-destructive addict thing.

A note: The Magician King is one of those sequels that can stand on its own. You'll love it even if you haven't read the first one, but reading them in order will deepen the experience a little bit. It also doesn't require you to have read any of the Narnia books, The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, but you'll laugh a little more if you have.

Disclosure: This review is based on an advanced review copy generously supplied by the publisher.

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