As much as I did not love Grossman’s The Magicians, the ending of that novel left me feeling pretty hopeful for the sequel. The last scene, indicating that the characters would be moving into a more clearly defined quest in an magical world, was pretty promising. I think that The Magician King is quite a bit more fun than the first book, and Quentin seems to be less annoying than in the first book, which is a good start.
The second novel in the series starts in Fillory, where Quentin and his three friends are ruling in an obvious parallel to the Narnia books. There are differences between the two – family relationships, magical abilities, age, etc, but it is still two females and two males from Earth ruling this magical realm. In the Narnia series, the Penvensie children rule Narnia seriously, and undertake quests for practical purposes or for fun. In The Magician King, Quentin searches out an adventure or quest because he is bored, which is an irritating holdover from the first novel. Quentin still wants to live his life like something from a fairytale despite actually living in the setting of a fantasy novel; his friends and companions seem to tolerate this, but it is still hard to like him as a person for the most part.
However, the action moves pretty quickly, and varies between the quest and Julia’s backstory from the previous years. Julia is fundamentally changed from the person that was first introduced in the opening scenes of the first novel. Her story is much darker and related in more detail than that of the other characters, and her obsession and awkwardness reminded me slightly of Lisbeth Salander. She accompanies Quentin on the quest, which Grossman carefully imbues with a flashes of danger interspersed with hard work and boredom, much like he had already depicted magical education.
Although I actually finished this novel months ago, when I think about the plot now it seems to me that the series is about about choices and unexpected consequences and change. The most beautiful scene in the first novel was the students transformation into geese, and Alice’s sacrifice, Julia’s desperation, Penny’s mysterious reappearance, and Quentin’s choice at the end of The Magician King are all variations on that theme. This, along with Grossman’s ability to end the stories on interesting cliffhangers, make this book a flow well from the first as well as setting up a third novel.