What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Run! (Don't Walk...) to pre-order "The Magician King"

Reading Lev Grossman's absorbing sequel to The Magicians is a bit like riding an invisible roller coaster that no one else has ridden and thus no one can really prepare you for. With every page you turn, Grossman opens up new and ever-wilder and ever-wider vistas, exploring the roots of magic itself in a novel that I can only describe as a tour de force.

When The Magician King opens, Quentin is a king of Fillory, the Narnia-like realm he and others had once believed was confined to the pages of a series of books. As Quentin and his friends from Brakebills -- the magical college -- had discovered in the first novel, Fillory was very real indeed. After a series of perilous adventures, the prior book (SPOILER ALERT!) had ended with Quentin flying off to join Eliot, Janet and Julia on the thrones of Fillory.

But even ruling as a king over a magical land like Fillory has its downside, it seems. A few years later, Quentin is restless, and itching for a new adventure or a quest. At first, chasing after a magical Seeing Hare seems like the answer, but that ends in tragedy. So Quentin decides to set off for an island on the outer fringers of Fillory -- so remote that it barely appears on maps -- to collect overdue taxes from residents. He holds a jousting match to select the kingdom's best swordsman to join the expedition and sets off with Julia and a giant talking sloth in the ship's hold. The last thing he expects when he discovers a magic key, is that it will lead to a portal that dumps both he and Julia back on the front lawn of his parents' home in the "real" world. "Quentin, King of Fillory, needed Fillory more than Fillory needed him," he realizes.

Is Quentin's real quest going to be just to get back to Fillory? Or does it have some kind of broader meaning or purpose? Each time you turn the page, the narrative moves and twists in unexpected directions, from a Venetian palazzo to an encounter with a dragon; a magical safe house in the South of France and a kind of Underworld for dead souls. Grossman jousts with big questions here, from the nature of courage and heroism to the nature and origins of magic and gods; The Magicians was merely a warm-up act for this novel. Reading it can be as unnerving as contemplating the meaning of life and the history of the universe, but the darker themes Grossman explores here are offset throughout by his trademark deadpan humor.  When it comes to Quentin's quest(s), he realizes that not understanding what he's looking for is normal. "Relative ignorance wasn't necessarily a handicap on a quest. It was something your dauntless questing knight accepted and embraced." However, Grossman has one of his characters point out, "it's not like the Holy Grail was actually useful for anything." Preparing to cast the biggest spell of their lives, one they hope will reveal the nature of magic itself, a group of elite magicians have to wait for the FedEx guy to show up with some of the supplies they need. There are a lot of tongue in cheek and sardonic asides that made me chortle and grin even in the midst of the narrative tension.

One of the fascinating elements of this sequel is how well Grossman does in tying up the loose ends of Julia's life. A high school classmate of Quentin's, she hadn't been admitted to Brakebills -- but the spells designed to wipe the admissions test from her memory hadn't stuck. In this novel, the reader learns how Julia emerged as an exceptionally powerful hedge witch -- and the price she paid for her powers. In the end, we learn of the link between Julia's experiences, Quentin's quest and the nature of the threat to the entire magical world.

This novel joins its predecessor on my list of "best books of 2011"; if you haven't read The Magicians yet, well, you've got another ten days or so before The Magician King appears in bookstores, and it's a great summer book to read. I'd recommend both highly; both are 4.6 star novels. Can't help wondering whether someone has snapped up film rights to these yet? Properly done, even though they'd have to be R-rated, they'd knock the Harry Potter films out of the ring.

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.com.


  1. Great review! I am very excited to read the sequel. Thanks for sharing! :)

  2. Genna, it's a great yarn; if you liked the first one, you'll love this one. It's different, and the parallels to the Potter books are less striking as there is no school for magicians, but that seems to have given Grossman's imagination freer rein!

  3. This book was just as good as the Magicians. Really holds your attention. The characters take some surprising turns. Wonderful.
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