“Being a hero, the man had observed, is largely a matter of knowing one’s cues.”
Hot on the heels of completing The Magicians, I decided to read Grossman's sequel, The Magician King. This was a mistake on several levels. The first problem is that the first book was awesome. The second was going to have a hard time living up regardless. The second problem is that the second book doesn't even come close to the first.
This book again follows Quentin Coldwater, our protagonist from the first book, although this time his chapters are interspersed with chapters detailing Julia's life before the starting point of this book. Yes, that sentence was terrible. Anyway, this narrative structure was just one of the missteps for this book. Honestly, I didn't care about Julia in the first book (not that we were given a reason to - she was a throwaway in the first book, barely a blip on Quentin's radar once he became a magician. Learning about her story never mattered to me, and actually following it detracted from what I was reading in the present (as her story was in the past). While I understand how it was relevant in the end (which I won't spoil, even though it's mind numbingly stupid), getting through her chapters was like pulling teeth. Moody, teenaged, depressed teeth. Ugh, so did not care. Julia is no substitute for Alice, and I felt her absence keenly every time Julia took center stage.
In addition, Quentin, who I expected to have grown up a little after the epic finale of the first book, really hasn't. Every time his character experiences some growth, something comes along to make him instantly disregard everything he's tried to learn. By the very last pages, I don't feel like Quentin is any more of a man or a grown up (or, more importantly in the context of this book, a hero) than he was at it's opening. It takes the few steps he had made in the first book and just throws them out the window every few plot twists.
And then there's the plot. Jesus. Quests, Gods, mystical rape, Unique Beasts, travels in and out of Fillory - it got really really ridiculous. Personally, I'm a big hater of using "God" or "Gods" as a scapegoat for creating conflict. The first book laid an interesting foundation point for where magic comes from. When they graduate from Brakebills, Dean Fogg gives a great little speech about how they have access to this power they probably shouldn't, and where does it come from, and who might take it back? This is really interesting theoretically. And there might have been ways to explore a source of magic without being so damned cliche about it. Without getting terribly spoilery about it, I just felt that not only was the use of Gods trite and uncreative, but the way they brought them into the story was just ridiculous. And whereas the showdown with the Beast from the last book was violent, graphic, and disturbing because it needed to be, the invocation scene with Julia just...no. No, no, a thousand times no. That got graphic and gross and the worst part is it felt like it was there for shock factor, not because that's how the story had to go.
All in all, this is one I'd suggest skipping, especially if you had any affection at all for The Magicians. I'm going to pretend I never read it and eventually go back and read the original again to wash the taste of this out of my mouth.