This book is a sequel to , and will contain some spoilers for that book, so you may want to skip to the end if you want to avoid such things.
Quentin Coldwater is now a king of the fantasy land of Fillory, ruling with his friends Elliot, Janet and Julia. Although never one to be happy with what he has, no matter how great, Quentin is getting bored. He decides he needs a quest, and he and Julia (along with the greatest swordsman of the realm, an admiral, a sloth and a surly teenaged mapmaker) set off to one of the more distant islands of the realm, to collect long overdue taxes. Once on the island, Quentin hears the story of seven magical golden keys, and his thirst for adventure leads them even further east.
However, the magical golden key opens a portal that deposits Quentin and Julia back in the real world, on Quentin's parents' doorstep. Desperate to get back to Fillory, he is forced to rely on Julia, who was rejected from Brakebills Academy, and denied the exclusive and prestigious boarding school education, was forced to teach herself the dark and twisted magic arts of the hedge witches through any means possible instead. As Quentin and Julia struggle to make their way back to their fantasy kingdom, Julia's past is slowly revealed, and it becomes obvious that previous events in her life are now affecting the present, both in Fillory and elsewhere.
Reading The Magicians, I was torn, because I enjoyed Grossman's world building and writing style, but really couldn't stand Quentin (and to a lesser extent his school friends Elliot, Janet and Josh). Generally, I thought becoming king of his favourite fantasy realm was a way better fate that he deserved. So it was no surprise to me that sooner or later his tendency towards discontent and depression, no matter how cool his existence, would set in, as it does in this book.
However, this book alternates between telling the story of Quentin and Julia's quest in the present and recounting the story of what happened to Julia after she failed the Brakebills entrance exam, and slowly felt her nice, promising future unravel. Becoming aware that magic is a very real thing, and that she is to be denied learning how to use it makes her go nuts for a while, and then with grim determination she sets out to teach herself everything she can. As Julia is every bit, if not more, clever than Quentin, she is able to use her genius to quickly advance on the underground magic circuit, until she finds a community of like-minded self trained scholars in the south of France.
A lot of the things she has to go through to get there are pretty grim and depressing, but they just made me like Julia more (and her story is such a contrast to whiny, self centred Quentin's). On the whole, I enjoyed The Magician King a lot more than The Magicians, as it combines Grossman's mostly excellent and often darkly comic writing with a more engaging story and switches the focus more away from Quentin. It helps that Quentin actually develops and over the course of the story starts caring about something apart from himself and his own self-fulfilment. By the end, I almost felt genuinely sorry for him, which I hadn't expected.
Because I liked this book so much more, I was especially disappointed with the final chapter in the Julia flashbacks, where Grossman uses one of my most hated storyline tropes, which just felt wholly unnecessary, especially considering everything else he made her go through to become a bad-ass sorceress. I'm not sure what I think about the actual ending of the book either, which enables Grossman to take the story in all sorts of different directions next time. So in conclusion, I absolutely prefer this to The Magicians, but I'll have to see if I want to keep going with the series.