As most people know by now, J.K. Rowling recently published a mystery novel, under the pseudonym John Galbraith. Like roughly half a million other people, I bought The Cuckoo’s Calling as soon as the ruse went public. I read the first hundred pages, and that’s where I suspect I parted company with the rest of the crowd.
People often say they “couldn’t put down” some bestseller they’re reading. I experience the insidious reverse: I enjoy some book while I’m reading it, and indeed if I could somehow contrive to get through the thing in one sitting, I’d happily add a notch to my kindle. The problem comes when I set the book aside. Some novels are stubbornly difficult to pick up again, and Rowling falls into this category for me.
Here I should admit that I stopped reading the Harry Potter books halfway through final installment, the final Voldemort confrontation and many other thrilling passages and set pieces still ahead of me. That seems crazy, I know. After nearly 4000 pages struggling with Harry and the gang through so many terms at Hogwarts, so many potions masters, so much mischief from the Ministry of Magic, so many brushes with the Dementors, so many hi-jinks from so many house-elves, how could I desert them in their final and most desperate hour?
Easy. I got bored.
The same thing happened, much more quickly, with Rowling’s mainstream novel of small town English politics, The Casual Vacancy. Call me foolish, or simply a loyal fan in the throes of denial, but it wasn’t until I gave up on The Cuckoo’s Calling that I was forced to admit that something was seriously askew.
The exact way it happened gave me a hint at the nature of the problem. I had recently started re-reading Lev Grossman’s far less popular fantasies. No knock on Grossman -- what isn’t far less popular than Harry Potter? Potable water and potato chips come to mind, but that’s about it. Anyway, Grossman is writing a trilogy, and the first two books are called The Magicians and The Magician King.
With volume two in my kindle, I had shifted to it, away from Rowling’s mystery, just before giving up on reading altogether for the night and going to sleep. The next morning I opened my e-reader to what I assumed would be The Cuckoo’s Calling. I felt a faint, almost ineffable shiver of reluctance. No matter: I was determined to pursue the investigations of Rowling’s hero, Cormoran Strike, using some portion of that crippled veteran’s stubborn discipline to get the job done. I would track him relentlessly into the hidden precincts of narrative bliss! Defeat was not an option! Morning would give me a new grip on the story.
I’m reasonably alert after my first cup of coffee.
Much to my surprise, when I opened the e-book, I was faced with a page of The Magician King. The relief was palpable. This is what I saw. I know it’s drastically out of context, hundreds of pages into the second book of a series, But Penny is an old friend of Quentin Coldwater, the titular Magician King, dating back to their days when they were both students at Brakebills College of Magical Pedagogy.
“Did you ever wonder,” Penny said, “where magic comes from?”
“Yes, Penny,” Quentin said dutifully. “I did wonder about that.”
“Henry had a theory, He told me about it when we were at Brakebills.”
He meant Dean Fogg. Penny only ever referred to the Brakebills faculty by their first names, to shown he thought of himself their equal.
“It seemed wrong to him that humans should have access to magic. Or not wrong, but strange. It didn’t make sense. He thought it was too good to be true. As magicians we were taking advantage of some kind of cosmic loop-hole to wield power that by rights we were never meant to have. The inmates had found the key to the asylum, and we were running amok in the pharmacy.
“Or think of the universe as a vast computer. We are end-users who have gained admin-level access to the system, and are manipulating it without authorization. Henry has a whimsical mind. He isn’t a rigorous theoretical theorist by any means, but he does have moments of insight. This was one of them.”
This is not the kind of question Rowling cares about. Grossman’s characters ponder the world and their position in it, in ways that the wizards and muggles and mudbloods never do. To be fair, most of Rowling’s readers probably don’t want them to. They want their story-telling straight and undiluted: no fancy cocktails with the bitters and egg-white foam of irony and humor. Just one shot glass of story after another: what happens next, what happens next, what happens next?, until they’re passed out on the floor.
I tell people that Lev Grossman’s books are a combination of Harry Potter and Bright Lights, Big City. His magicians are college-age, hip, self-aware, snide and funny. They’ve read Rowling (and laugh at the way her wizards need wands); they’ve read C.S. Lewis, too – as well as Christopher Plover, author of the Fillory and Further tetrology. This last set of books, chronicling the adventures of the five Chatwin children in a Narnia-like fantasy realm, have been the primary literary obsession of Quentin Coldwater, the hero of the Magicians books, since he first learned how to read.
The truth of the matter at first appears to be every reader’s dream: Fillory is real, the Chatwin children really went there, and you can, too. That’s what Quentin discovers, along with some considerably darker revelations. Though the Chatwin kids were booted out of their fantastical utopia at the end of every adventure by the twin rams Ember and Umber, who rule over the magic kingdom, in reality the oldest boy Martin contrived to stay on, becoming a horrific, corrupted – and immensely powerful -- Beast in the process. Quentin and his fellow-graduates eventually face off with Martin, as the Hogwarts crew finally have their showdown with Voldemort.
But for the Brakebills crew that battle is really just the beginning, the climax of the first novel, with many more adventures to come. Quentin and his three friends become the Kings and Queens of Fillory by the start of the second book, and as one might expect of real people, the endless luxury, delicious food and vast straight boulevards of leisure time soon begin to pall on them. At this moment a real crisis threatens the magical world. The gods or godlike creatures who actually run things have discovered that humans have been using magic. As the ever-irksome Penny explains, “They’re going to close whatever loop hole they’ve left open that lets us use magic. When they’re done it will go dead, not just here but everywhere, in every world … most worlds will simply lose magic. I think Fillory may fall apart and cease to exist entirely.”
But there’s a “back door” written into the software of this system, a way to “let magic back out into the universe”.
It requires finding seven keys, and that requires a full scale, all-hands-on-deck quest, just the sort of authentic adventure, with the highest possible stakes, that Quentin and his friends, and of course the reader, have been longing for. The books have featured other journeys – the trip to Brakebills South, with Quentin’s whole class transformed into geese for the migration; the perilous voyage from that outpost to the South Pole using only the spells they’d learned. Then there was that first trip to Fillory, stalking Martin Chatwin and finally finding him in Ember’s tomb, a maze of catacombs under the Nameless Mountains.
But this new quest relates directly to a very different hunt, one undertaken by Julia Wicker, Quentin’s high school crush. She was also invited to apply to Brakebills, but she didn’t get in. Most rejects take the whole experience as a kind of dream and forget about it, a specialized amnesia helped along with spells from the faculty of school itself.
But Julia remembers. She knows magic is real and starts to teach herself – finding old books, and weird fragmets of spells on-line, Finally, moving through hidden safehouses and acquiring the tattoo stars that credential her progress, she discovers an elite group of self-taught underground magicians. It is their combined efforts to penetrate the deeper world of magic that alerts the gods to the humans trespassing in their world.
They caused the crisis. now Julia has to help solve it.
The adventure ends on a beach at the farthest edge of the world, by a wall with a door and seven keyholes. The triumph is a bittersweet one for Quentin:
This was the triumph, People would tell this story forever. Though they might leave out how melancholy the twilit beach seemed, like all beaches in the early evening, when the fun is over.
This is what I get from Grossman that I find so lacking in J.K.Rowling – the rueful adult point of view, that irony-laced realism. Here is Quentin talking about the mechanics of spells and incantations, with a gentle sideswipe at the students of Hogwarts:
One thing had always confused Quentin about the magic he read about in books: it never seemed especially hard to do. There were lots of furrowed brows and thick books and long white beards and whatnot, but when it came right down to it, you memorize the incantation – or you just read it off the page if that was too much trouble – you collected the herbs, waved the wand, rubbed the lamp, mixed the potion, said the words –and just like the forces of the beyond did your bidding. It was like making salad dressing or driving stick or assembling Ikea furniture – just another skill you could learn. It took some time and effort, but compared to doing calculus, say, or playing the oboe –well there was just no comparison. Any idiot could do magic.
Quentin had been perversely relieved when he learned there was more to it than that.
And of course, all of this ultimately comes from Lev Grossman himself. Beyond the characters and the plot of these books, the unique playful inquisitive sharp-witted mind of their author sparkles. You want to meet Grossman as you move through these clever, truth-spiked fables, and in fact you do meet him. To some extent this is true of all authors, apart from the step-by-step machinsts of the Hardy Boys or the Harlequin Press.
But that’s where the harsh judgment intrudes. Some people are just more interesting than others, and the ability to construct a suspense-filled plot doesn’t indicate much about you. A plot is like a bannister or a pleated dress: the skill required to construct them doesn’t guarantee a lively mind or a scintillating dinner companion. Or a book that stays with you after the last page is closed.
Rowling is in many ways a wonderful story teller, but she cannot give you the greater wonder of the way the story is told. And I find, these days, that’s all I really care about. I root for Harry Potter and the gang but I care about Quentin Coldwater, and I cared about him from the first lines of the first book:
“Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.”
Harry Potter is done and I think even Rowling allowed herself a sigh of relief when she reached the end. Ultimately, Harry was a well-intentioned bore. He could never have had subversive but entirely reasonable thoughts like these about Hogwarts:
Quentin’s mind spun.Maybe he should ask to see a brochure. And no one had said anything about tuition yet. And gift horses and all that notwithstanding, how much did he know about this place? Suppose it really was a school for magic. Was it any good? What if he’d stumbled onto some third tier magic college by accident? He had to think practically. He didn’t want to be committing himself to some community college of sorcery …
Well, Brakebills turned out to be first rate, and so did the books. As for Quentin, he’ll be back next year, in The Magician’s Land, and I for one can’t wait to see him.