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Another fine mess

Reader fan critic teacher reader fan.

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The Magician King - Lev Grossman The upshot is that this book beautifully modulated a forward momentum and a willingness to wander off the path, relishing the lush digressive detailing of its thick histories, the richly-imagined world/s, a slew of characters (continuing and new).

Quentin Coldwater returns very much in the pink: he and his friends went back to Fillory, the mythical otherworld discovered (and fought over) in book one. And, as in C.S. Lewis' tales, they are royalty. So, things being rosy, Quentin is of course bored. What else is there? Throughout Magician King, Grossman fiddles and riddles with the quest narrative, unpacking its allure and our motives. There is an overarching danger (the old gods, up to ineffable old-god tricks with the basics of the universe), travel to far lands (and back home, and away from home--or just displaced from any sense of "home" at all), a series of new characters and exploits. And a parallel track back through Julia's story--the magician who didn't get the prep-school training, who came up off the conventional magic path... her discovery of magic, and its darkness, is like a noir revision of the arc from book one.

One of Grossman's many talents (the bastard) is a gorgeous wit--embedded in the structure and everywhere in the prose--framing every scene. It can veer to top-notch smartassery--

He really liked the dryads, the mysterious nymphs who watched over oak trees. You really knew you were in a magical fantasy otherworld when a beautiful woman wearing a skimpy dress made of leaves suddenly jumped out of a tree.

--but it's as often sneakier, more incisive, less showy. And never mere snark; his sly self-mockery is never derisive or parodic. There's also a serious emotional heft to the book; Julia's ache and alienation, and the price she pays in seeking to salve those woes, caught me off-guard, right in the gut.

You could read this as straight adventure, as sly character study disguised in fantastic trappings, as metafictional ruminating from a rigorous fan of the genre, or just as another fine novel about growing up, and the losses attendant with adult choices. Or all of 'em: I was surprised how much I enjoyed this, because (and I won't flog the horse yet again, after this brief note) I'm decidedly not in the typical demographic: Potter leaves me cold, Tolkien tried my patience, Narnia got right up my nose (even as a 10-year-old). Typical fantasy ain't for me. But Grossman again won me over. It's a tremendously entertaining and smart read, and I swallowed it almost whole, in a couple of days.

My single caveat is that it's a sequel... readable as a stand-alone, but I'd bet that'd be an often frustrating experience. If this book intrigues you, track back to the prior volume and read 'em in sequence.

Thanks to Penguin Group and NetGalley for the advance copy.