While I read often, I rarely read quickly. I am jealous of my friends who can devour books. I am not that way and am awfully indecisive. My reading habit is to start six or seven books hopping between each and hoping one amongst all of them will stick. And even then, sometimes none of them do. But I’m happy to report that Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and The Magician King were books that I devoured.
This is all to say that I enjoyed those books immensely. And yet one minor passage midway through The Magician King gives me pause and illustrates why I am — in the end and inescapably — a Nerd of Color. Like most things, it has to do with penis, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
So the elevator pitch I’ve been telling friends for The Magicians is that it’s a contemporary lit take on Harry Potter and Narnia. And by “contemporary lit take,” I mean all of the main characters are awful, entitled (and mostly White) human beings who make horrible decisions.
Magic loses its magic because the characters who have everything find everything still unsatisfying. It might sound like I don’t like it, but I actually do quite enjoy this cynical angle. Most of the characters are dicks but they’re fully realized dicks. So it’s entertaining. At times I want to see certain characters succeed, and at other times, I fully enjoy seeing them get their just desserts for being awful. And though the dissatisfaction that comes with magic is a major theme, there are some wonderfully written passages to be had. The geese transformation in The Magicians is probably the best example; though, the two major battles in both books are also appropriately thrilling.
And so I’m recommending both books. Go read them; they’re fun. BUT I’ve got to put on the Nerd of Color hat for a moment. Spoilers to follow.
A big part of the Magicians universe is that there are multiple dimensions/planets where all of our fantasy worlds exist. There’s this giant hub planet that connects all the other planets through fountains. Late in the first book, this hub is how the protagonists find Fillory — Grossman’s Narnia stand-in. A whole mess of stuff happens while they’re in Fillory, and eventually, all of the characters disband only to reunite by the second book.
One of the side characters — Josh, another magician — is eventually one of the only characters left with the ability to travel between dimensions. He’s the joking smart-ass of the group and when he finds he has nothing to do, he starts jumping through as many dimensions as he can in hopes that he’ll find something. This is all well and good and very much in his character. So later on in The Magician King, Josh tells Quentin, the protagonist, about his adventures jumping through dimensions. He reveals it was actually kind of lonely and awful.
Eventually, we learn that Josh stumbled onto a literal Oriental fantasy world. Though this could have been the first red flag, I’m actually fine with this. There isn’t too much description of the world, though it’s enough to resemble some traditional jidaigeki or wuxia fantasy novel. While Josh was there, he fell in love with a woman warrior… which is awkward, but okay. BUT THEN Josh has to go and imply that he’d probably do well in that Orientalist world because he’d be better endowed. In other words even in a fantasy world, the Asians still have small penises. Ugh.
It’s such a small passage out of an otherwise great pair of books but again, ugh. For real? A small dick joke? It’s weird also because most of the book eschews any kind of racial discussion, keeping most of the cultural references comfortably WASPish and European. But then, out of nowhere, I’ve got to deal with Josh making a small Asian dick joke. Like maybe if there were more characters of color it’d be okay? Or way more racial humor at least? It’s just weird that that comes up, of all things. It took me out of the story for a couple hours. It didn’t turn me off completely, though. I don’t think Lev Grossman is a racist or anything. But damn. Another fucking dick joke? UGH.
You might say, “But it’s totally within Josh’s character to make that joke because he’s a smart ass.” And I’d agree with you that the comment is in character. But I don’t buy the idea that here, in this moment, Grossman was being a slave to the “truth of the characters” and couldn’t think of something else — anything else — to convey Josh’s character. It’s a weak moment in a pair of books that spend a lot of time subverting expectations.
So that’s my complaint about an otherwise fun couple of books.
TL;DR: Grossman writes a fun pair of novels but makes an Asians-have-small-dicks-joke, so I’m lodging my eye roll on the internet.