Quentin and friends are the kings and queens of Fillory and everything is marvelous. Or it is, until it becomes apparent that something is wrong. King Quentin takes it upon himself to fix things. With Julia in tow, he sails to the ends of Fillory to fix the world. Can he succeed in the quest of a lifetime and save Fillory?
If The Magicians was Lev Grossman's Harry Potter with a healthy slice of Narnia, The Magician King is Lev Grossman's Lord of the Rings. Grossman takes all the quest story staples and focuses them through his lens. Not only does Grossman tell the story of Quentin rising to the occasion and stopping his rampant douche-baggery, he also tells the harrowing tale of Julia's own rise to magical prowess after her failure during the Brakebills exam. Where the first book is essentially a coming of age story, this one is a pair of quest stories.
I have to admit that I wasn't completely sold at first. Neither thread of the story seemed to be moving very fast and Julia's tale wasn't really grabbing me. Then it all clicked and I was hooked, devouring the book in two extended sittings.
Quentin rises above his roots in The Magician King, finally becoming someone we actually like reading about. As for Julia's parallel tale, I'll save that for my spoilers section. Grossman explores the various quest story tropes and simultaneously crafts a grand quest story of his own. More on that in the spoilers section.
Grossman did a ton of world-building in The Magician King. The Neitherlands were explained, Fillory was fleshed out, and lots of things lurking just out of sight were hinted at. All of it was well integrated with the rest of the story and I didn't feel like I was being slapped in the face with it.
Poppy was by far my favorite of the new characters. I liked how she called Quentin to the carpet over ignoring the real world in favor of Fillory. I also liked that she and Quentin didn't immediately stumble and fall into each other's genitals.
Julia's tale was a poignant tale of loss and sacrifice. While I wasn't too keen on it at first, it became my favorite part of the story after a while. Her new friends were an interesting bunch. Too bad about what happened to them. See the spoiler section for details.
One thing I continue to love is Grossman's magic system. It's grown a bit from its Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell roots. The notion that magic is the leftover tools from when the gods created the world is repeated and expanded upon.The spoiler section:
First of all, the parallel structure of the story clued me into the source of magic's strange behavior pretty early on. Not that that impaired my enjoyment in the least. What Julia and her friends summoned, however, was pretty unexpected.
I liked Penny's reappearance and the revelations about the Neitherlands, the gods, and the Order. Once Penny revealed the full scope of what was at stake, I felt like I was reading The Gunslinger's palaver with the Man in Black again for the first time. I fully expect Quentin to join the Order in the third book. Speaking of there being a third book, I think it was around page 300 that I realized there was no way Grossman would be able to wrap things up in a satisfactory fashion in the pages he had left.
I like that The Order created a back door for magic in case the gods tried to cut off the supply, as do I like the notion that magicians are hacking the machinery of reality.
The ending was perfect. While it was a bittersweet victory for Quentin, I kind of think he had it coming for the amount of bitching he did in the first book.
In conclusion, if you dug the first book and don't like your sequels to be "Second verse, same as the first," you'll probably enjoy The Magician King. Go out and get it right now!