If you haven’t read The Magicians, go read that first. Stop reading this review. The Magician King is Lev Grossman’s excellent sequel. The book proceeds in parallel narratives, alternating by chapters, between King Quentin and his fellows king and queens in Fillery on the one hand, and the story of what happened to Julia, Quentin’s high-school crush, after she failed the entrance exam to Brakebills. The narratives come together in the final chapters. Quentin is still something of a sad sack, always hoping that the next adventure or quest will bring him happiness (guess how that works out), and his story starts a little slow given how familiar it seems to what we’ve seen before. But it picks up as the quest grows more dire, filled with plot twists, and as Quentin learns some invaluable lessons about heroism. (I really liked the ending of this book; it completely defied expectations and yet managed to be powerful and satisfying at the same time.)
Julia’s narrative is filled with desperation, as she tries to learn magic through an unregulated network of magicians with no formal training. Just as the first book managed to capture certain emotional processes wonderfully (such as betrayal), so this one captures obsession and desperation. There is also lots of humor, pop culture references, and endless creativity. (Occasionally Grossman fills a scene with so many creative ideas that it’s concentrated delight, as in the contest of swordsmanship competition in this book and the Brakebills entrance exam in the last.) I highly recommend this book. The reading in the unabridged audiobook is excellent.
Note on content: The book has strong language scattered throughout, some fantasy violence, and one harrowing scene of sexual violence.