The magic has returned! This sequel to 2009's The Magicians returns us to the magical world of Fillory, where Quentin, Eliot, Janet, and Julia reign as kings and queens. Although they live in luxury in the palace and want for nothing, Quentin feels vaguely unsatisfied. When the opportunity arises to collect unpaid taxes from an island at the furthest edge of the kingdom, he jumps at it, setting sail as soon as he can. He is accompanied by Julia, his high-school crush who failed the entrance exam to Brakebills (Grossman's Americanized and far more realistic version of Hogwarts) but nonetheless found some way to learn magic.
Although Quentin's initial purpose was a mundane one, he finds himself on an altogether different mission, to find first one, then seven, golden keys. Their adventure becomes nothing less than a mission to save magic itself, and takes them back to Earth - where both Quentin and Julia, for different reasons, are desperate to find their way back to Fillory - into the world of the dead, and to the end of the world.
Interspersed with the main narrative is the backstory of how Julia gained her magical powers, a harrowing tale that explains why Julia appears so emotionally disconnected.
As with the earlier book, The Magician King takes the modern touchstones of Harry Potter and the Narnia novels (with a dash of Tolkien and perhaps other fantasy series as well) and adds a healthy dose of realism. The Fillory kings and queens are more like ordinary young people than the idealized heroes of those other series. Quentin is impetuous and subject to bad decisions; they all drink too much and have made unwise choices in romantic relations.
In the first book, Quentin learns that a life of ease isn't necessarily a satisfying one. (Sadly, in the second book, he has to learn that lesson a second time.) As for this book, the review in the New York Times puts it well:
“Everybody wanted to be the hero of their own story,” Quentin declares, framing the novel’s theme in neat miniature. But by the end of “The Magician King,” he comes to realize that he just might not be. It’s a harsh lesson, and one that, in keeping with the preoccupations and innovations of this serious, heartfelt novel, turns the machinery of fantasy inside out.
Will another sequel follow? I can only hope so.