Friday, February 14, 2014

The Magician King

by Lev Grossman

The Continuing Adventures of a Smug Magical Asshole, as written by An Asshole. and now featuring The New Adventures of a Completely Self-Absorbed Bitch.

i suppose i understand the acclaim that has been heaped on Grossman. he is playing with tropes as his characters play with magic. he has a puckish sensibility that makes reading his series a tart and spiky experience. his tone is breezily casual and entirely unsentimental. and since Snark is the New Law of the New Millenium, the snark that is delivered in spades throughout his novels probably lets many readers off the hook of reading genre fiction... everything is delivered neatly wrapped up within a knowing, eye-rolling, jaded wrapping paper. this gift can be unwrapped at sophisticated dinner parties and the reader won't have to suffer any kind of embarrassment over reading and talking about "Fantasy".

but i had to do a lot of eye-rolling of my own. it's not as if The Magician King is just about a shallow little prick who views everything - and i mean Everything - around him with disdain. i probably would have less of an issue with this book if it were simply about an unsympathetic protagonist. but nope, the author himself makes it clear that he is officially on the side of cynical, snarky assholery. it is all in the writing itself, and not just in the voice of our tedious hero. i can start with the ending, where banality has been substituted for actual meaning and resonance. but the problem is endemic to the entire narrative. people and places are described in the same shallow, smirky, insulting manner, as if the book was actually written by our tedious hero. a bit of the jokiness scores; most of it just falls flat, with a thud. like the irritating, oh-so-clever commentary of some overly-intellectual prick at a party, going on and on about how pedestrian tv is, how terrible music is these days, how pop culture is for idiots, how he's been there, done that, and there were so many tourists and it was all so predictable and banal and now he's rolling his eyes and arching his eyebrows and i just want to smack the bullshit right out of him. in short, this novel lacks SINCERITY.

10079321okay, enough of the complaints. there is still a lot to enjoy. first off, new co-protagonist The Completely Self-Absorbed Bitch is actually pretty interesting and her parallel flashback adventures are often enthralling. the way that the parallel narratives of our heroine's past and our hero's present eventually dovetail into one narrative is clever and quite elegantly structured. an island battle is genuinely thrilling. the novel's major set-piece, where a bunch of brilliant but mentally ill magicians conjure up an actual god is pretty awesome - and very upsetting. the story of young Benedict is also quite well-done... there is genuine tragedy and sadness there, in a way that really stands out from the rest of the narrative. and extra points for portraying rape without even the slightest bit of offensive sexiness.

i was happy to see my favorite characters from the prior novel, Penny and that novel's superb villain Martin Chatwin, both return in a couple excellent cameos. and many of the ideas are wonderful - in particular the Neitherlands, dragons, Venice, the return of the old gods, magical halfway houses, a magical ship, magicians who have somehow transitioned into higher beings, the seven golden keys, a sloth, the Customs Agent and especially her daughter... and i'm probably missing a few equally choice nuggets. The Magician King is deeply flawed and its juvenile tone may be instantly dismissable; it is also practically brimming over with a host of smart, fun, and intriguing moments. much like a creative, outsider-type teenager - full of unearned cynicism and irritating snarkiness, but also full of vibrant energy, a host of ideas, and a fresh, sometimes even brilliant way of looking at things.

so, when all is said and done, i'd actually recommend this book as an interesting and often enjoyable experience. but i'd have to give a big disclaimer before recommending it - a disclaimer delivered with a little snark and a lot of eye-rolling.

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