So I finished Lev Grossman's The Magician King. I'd been afraid that I wouldn't remember anything from The Magicians, since I read that one years ago. And Grossman doesn't give you much; there are no handy pockets of exposition. And there were definitely a few references I couldn't remember at all, or only vaguely. But somehow it worked anyway; I remembered enough.
The book picks up where the first left off. Quentin, Julia, Eliot and Janet are the kings and queens of Fillory, a Narnia-esque magical land from a book series they grew up reading. It's kind of novel (hah!) to have characters in a fantasy novel have the same literary canon that we do (with the addition of Fillory, of course). They make references to Harry Potter and Narnia and Tolkein. They have specific ideas of how things are supposed to work. Take quests, for example:
"He'd read enough to know that a state of relative ignorance wasn't necessarily a handicap on a quest. It was something your dauntless questing knight accepted and embraced. You lit out into the wilderness at random, and if your state of mind, or maybe it was your soul, was correct, then adventure would find you through the natural course of events. It was like free association--there were no wrong answers. It worked as long as you weren't trying too hard."
Dude, I can't even tell you how many quest stories I've tried to write. It seems so easy from the outside because there are no rules, there doesn't have to be a map. But then you have to make shit actually happen, and it gets all complicated and hard. Anyway. The tone of this book is unique. Quentin loves magic the same way any of us fantasy-lovers would if we found out it was real. If I could go to Narnia? Shit. I'd be all over that. So it's easy to identify with Quentin. He can get a little douchey at times, but we get it. He does stuff because it looks cool. He wants adventure because he loves the idea of adventure. It's a specific idea of adventure, too; when he gets stuck on Earth for a few days, even though he's traversing the secret paths of this underground magic community, he's meeting river dragons and hanging out in a palazzo in Venice, he doesn't even realize he's having an adventure. All he can think about is getting back to Fillory. A quest is just more...questy on a ship, amirite?
Quentin's whole journey is only part of the story. Grossman switches between Quentin's perspective in the present and Queen Julia's past. Because Julia was different--she wasn't accepted into the magic school with Quentin and the others. She learned magic existed, and was shut out from that world.
She didn't take it very well.
I loved Julia's chapters. They're darker than Quentin's. She suffers from depression. She throws her old life away, family and all, in her pursuit of magic. I feel like it was handled well. She acknowledges that she's destroying her family, breaking their hearts, by leaving. But we can also understand why she does it. Grossman never condemns her. When she eventually finds her own magic "school," her own community, we know things aren't going to end well. In the present, we know she is struggling with, well, humanity. Quentin notes early in the book that "she didn't speak much these days. And for some reason she'd mostly given up using contractions." She only seems to get worse as the book goes on--she retreats into herself, acts all cryptic, that kind of thing. It might be frustrating if Grossman didn't give us insight into how and why she became this way.
The chapter--THE CHAPTER--that really explains so much about what's going on--well, it's brutal. When Grossman does violence, it's sudden, it's graphic, it's shocking. Julia's rape is abrupt and horrifying. It results in the loss of her...soul, I guess. She loses her already-tenuous grasp on her own humanity. Watching her surrogate family be murdered around her doesn't help.
I'm not sure how I feel about it, to be honest. The idea that rape removes Julia's soul? I've known rape victims. I've volunteered for my local rape crisis center. I know that rape affects each victim differently. I wouldn't say they become soulless. But it's a story. Can rape make some victims disengage from the people and events around them? I think it can. And I think Julia's character is treated with compassion throughout the book. She's given her own voice, which is so important. If the entire story was seen from Quentin's perspective, it wouldn't work. But as it is, I think it does.
And then, jeez, the END of the book! Quentin is expelled from Fillory. He finally learns what it really is to be a hero.
"This isn't how it ends!" Quentin said. "I am the hero of this goddamned story! Remember? And the hero gets the reward!"
"No, Quentin," the ram said. "The hero pays the price."
He was going back alone. This, now, this stopped him. He'd known that adventures were supposed to be hard. He'd understood that he would have to go a long way and solve difficult problems and fight foes and be brave and whatever else. But this was hard in a way he hadn't counted on. You couldn't kill it with a sword or fix it with a spell. You couldn't fight it. You just had to endure it, and you didn't look good or noble or heroic doing it...It didn't make a good story--in fact he saw now that the stories had it all wrong, about what you got, and what you gave. It's not that he wasn't willing. He just hadn't understood."
Sounds a lot like life, doesn't it?