Lev Grossman recently wrote an article about being both a writer and a critic, and the potential ethical landmines. I wrestle with this concept a lot. Okay, I'm not a critic. I'm a reader who has opinions about books. He's the book critic for Time, which means he has oodles more cred in this department than I do. Although I continue to rumble the issue around in my mind, the bottom line is, I guess, that I'm a writer and I read. I strive to be the best writer I can, and I also have opinions about the books I read. I think we have to leave it at that. My writing needs to stand on its own terms, separate from how I view other writers' works. Also, inherent in having a foot in both worlds is that if you don't think I am uber critical of my own writing and fully aware of all its faults, there's a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell you.
Anyway, onto the review. Some months back on this blog I reviewed Grossman's book The Magicians. An admitted Harry Potter fanatic, I inhaled this book and reveled in its strengths and forgave many of its weaknesses because the world-building was so fascinating and beautifully written. The moribund characterization of the protagonist, Quentin, was something of a warning bell, but in a well-written book there is often an energy that will carry you along, successfully eliding over the sticky bits, and this was such a book. I ended that review with a bit of a "hmmmm" about Quentin, but all in all, a very enjoyable, fascinating read.
In The Magician King we return to Fillory, where Quentin, Janet, Elliott, and Julia reign as monarchs. Monarchs of what I can't say. They essentially do nothing. Their jobs seem nothing more than titles as they faff away their days doing, well, nothing; this becomes very important by the end of the book, IMO. Two competing story lines fill out of the bulk of the book: Quentin's quest to become some sort of hero (why he is compelled to become a hero when he was clearly the hero in the last book is inexplicable--defeating Martin Chatwin wasn't enough?), and the back story of Julia's quest to assume her rightful place as a magician. In a fully successful novel, two competing story lines often ramp up the tension as the reader bounces back and forth from one cliffhanger to another.
Interestingly, although nearly a third of the book is back story (usually a pacing killer), Julia's story dominates this novel completely. She is accessible and sympathetic as a character in all the ways that Quentin is not, although neither character is particularly nice. Quentin began this series as a smart-ass arrogant know-it-all, and he finishes the series to date basically the same. I don't see much of a difference between the Quentin at the end of Book 1 and Quentin at the end of Book 2. In fact, his odd friendship with Benedict feels out of place; shoehorned in as a plot device. There was a lot of tell not show in this book, with Quentin's friendship with Benedict only one example. There was a lot of, well, I don't know why I liked him, but I did. I don't know why I need to travel to the underworld to talk to a kid that I haven't really connected with and who clearly doesn't like me, but I do. I get the sense that Grossman is trying to elevate Quentin's character by these acts of bravery, and yet, IMO, they don't work because Quentin as a character hasn't grown enough to successfully explain his motivations. We are left with a "I must, therefore I do, otherwise the plot won't move forward" type of sensibility.
Julia on the other hand! Wow, I loved her back story: her isolation, her slowly disintegrating relationship with her family, and her choosing magic over her family. THIS was what was missing in the first book with the Brakebills students. How their relationships with their parents were so abysmal that pretty much across the board they were able to dust off these relationships like so much dandruff. Not Julia, her story was beautifully handled. I found myself wanting to skim the "present day" Quentin story to get to Julia's back story because it was so compelling. Her characterization was flawless, which is why I don't get why Quentin is STILL a sarcastic wanker. Clearly, Grossman is capable of writing a complex, fascinating sympathetic character complete with warts and flaws. Unfortunately, it's not his protagonist.
This is one of those unusual situations where the events that surround a main character should change him/her but do not. I think that part of the problem is Quentin's continuous snarky asides; they undercut the tragedy. By the time we reach the end of the book and Quentin faces the ultimate tragedy, there is no sense that Quentin is capable of mourning, because he's not even mourning Alice in this novel. She's become the "She Who Must Not Be Named" character that no one dare mention. Which means that the one avenue whereby we could see a wounded Quentin is cut off.
So we come to the end of the book. I found the last twenty pages inexplicable. I couldn't understand the logic behind them. It just didn't make sense. You banish the one person responsible for saving the magical world because he doesn't have a passport?????????????????????????????????? Excuse me! And everyone around him is like, sorry, buddy, those are the breaks. Catch you on the flip side. The loss of Quentin's crown means there is no place for him in Fillory, except he does BUGGAR ALL, so WTF. It feels like he's merely a placeholder, his crown nothing more than a passport. Clearly these royal roles mean nothing because they are casually handed out like a box of chocolates. Josh. Poppy. You're up! Why couldn't they have created yet another role for him, because, frankly, his role as king seems equally manufactured.
It's obvious that there will be yet another book in this series, which is why Quentin is yet AGAIN in exile from Fillory. I anticipate in Book 3 he will either resurrect Alice or he will meet Alice2. I think that Grossman could have gone a long way in humanizing Quentin if he'd had him faffing about much less and mourning Alice much more. At this point Quentin is pretty much in the same place at the end of Book 2 as he was at the end of Book 1. He hasn't moved that much as a character. He announces he wants to be a hero, the genesis of which is never explained. Why does he want to be a hero? I'm still wondering. To assuage his conscience over Alice's death? To save others because he couldn't save her? I honestly don't know. All I know is that this was an exceptionally clumsy end to a book that had many moments of elegant, punchy writing.
At this point, Grossman's sobriquet as the writer of the adult Harry Potter has even more cred as he begins to share J. K. Rowling's fatal flaw: exceptional world-building at the expense of his characters.