Monday, January 30, 2012

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

The Magician King is the best adventure story I've ever read.

Unsurprisingly, it follows Joseph Campbell's model of the hero's journey more closely than any story I've ever read. But unlike other classic hero stories and Grossman's first novel, The Magicians, this book has two heroes: Quentin initiates the quest, but his story is entwined with that of his childhood friend and fellow monarch, Julia. In The Magicians, Quentin's pride kept him from helping Julia learn magic. Consequently, she looked for it on her own and ended up alone in a series of dark and dangerous supernatural situations. Welcome to the seamy magical underworld, reader! The Magician King is the story of Quentin's atonement and Julia's recovery. It's a soberer and more mature book than the first. If The Magicians is about looking for something worth loving, then The Magician King is about protecting that which you love. The hero doesn't go on adventures; the hero makes the sacrifice.

I promise there are no spoilers under this cut.
Again, this book perfectly follows Joseph Campbell's outline of the hero's journey: Quentin feels the call to adventure, chooses supernatural helpers and guides (in a few forms, some of which are quite unexpected), ventures into an unknown world (oops!), undergoes a series of trials, meets The Ultimate Power, finds mastery through ultimate sacrifice, and ultimately, witnesses deification and undergoes redemption. Did Grossman write with a Redbull in one hand and Joseph Campbell Cliff Notes in the other? I think so, and that's a good thing.

The journey is epic, but Grossman keeps it real with natural language and realistically flawed characters. The dialogue is peppered with pop-culture references that keep the story grounded and believable. Fantasy and sci-fi fans will laugh out loud at quips like this: While disembarking to explore an uncharted island, the characters joke that they don't have enough red-shirts in the group. And Quentin, Julia, and their friends aren't perfectly virtuous heroes. They're jealous, lazy, snobbish, and foul-mouthed, and their familiarity with fine wine annoys me. Still, their bravery, self-sacrifice, and wit make up for these less admirable qualities. I don't want to say too much, because I don't want to give anything away. Just read The Magicians and The Magician King, and then let's talk.

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