Short Book Review: The Magician King

I generally enjoyed Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. I was less impressed with the sequel, The Magician King. While The Magicians seemed largely about how magical fantasy worlds are no real escape from the harsh truths of reality, The Magician King simply seemed needlessly brutal to me. If you’re inclined to skip reading things that get introduced with the term “trigger warning,” then give this one a pass.

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I’ll meet you halfway at brutal, but during the whole sequence you’re talking about, my inner mythology nerd was sadly shaking his head, saying, “well, what were you expecting?” I’m trying to decide if that counts as victim-blaming.

As far as the rest of it goes, I was more put off by it not having nearly the emotional depth of the first book, which seemed to be more about characters where this one was more about events. I’ll still read the next one when it shows up, but I don’t think I’ll have the expectations for it that I did for this one. How meta; this series is pretty much a meditation on disappointment.

I’m going to veer into spoiler territory in order to discuss this further, so if you’re a concerned would-be reader, maybe best to stop reading now. (Also, um, trigger warning.)

So yeah, I can see how the scene in question kind of made sense within the logic/mythology of the series. Still, I didn’t see it as a productive element within the logic of storytelling, if that makes any sense. I couldn’t get through the scene without thinking, “Who does this author think he is have the climax of this story be a brutal rape scene that results in superpowers?” Plus, while Quentin’s story seems much more event driven, as you note—it’s basically a “hero’s journey”—Julia’s story seemed the more character-oriented side of the tale this time around. For some reason, I felt like the character was … mistreated by the author, perhaps? … in a way that I didn’t feel about any of the characters in the first book, despite all the ills that befell them.

I see what you’re saying. It does seem like something of a cop-out from a storytelling perspective; it’s like the end state was known (“super-mage in the middle of a messy divorce from her humanity”) and he needed a sufficiently traumatic way to get her there. On the other hand, I’m also not sure where else he could have gone that would have fit the setting — he’s established a universe where mucking with great power produces terrible consequences for everyone involved, and an awful lot of gods in various mythologies were quite well known for their raping. I think the thing that doesn’t sit well is that we’ve spent an entire book following Julia around, while we only have names for the women on Zeus’s rap sheet.

Julia’s mirror-universe version of the first book’s events was by far the more interesting part of this one. I really wonder what he’s going to do for the third book, given that we’ve already explored what characters on and off the sanctioned magical grid have to sacrifice to achieve mastery. I’m kind of worried that it’ll either be rehash (is there yet another path to magical knowledge?) or another case of “we already know these characters, so they’re just going to do some stuff without developing at all.”

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