People sometimes tend to sum up Lev Grossman's fantasy debut, The Magicians, as a kind of anhedonic version of Harry Potter crossed with Narnia. But it's actually a lot deeper than that — The Magicians explored what happens when our fantasies come true, and what it means to put yourself, your screwy demented self, in the middle of those pristine fantasies. And it turns out that even when you get handed the fantasy on a platter, you still need an insane amount of hard work and bloody-mindedness to hold onto it and make it work.
In the sequel, The Magician King, Grossman takes this theme in a whole new direction, as his hero Quentin discovers that heroism is a tad harder to learn than magic. Spoilers ahead...
At the end of The Magicians, Quentin becomes one of four kings and queens of the magical land of Fillory, which is basically an analog of Narnia. And the second book finds them in the midst of extreme luxury, with a whole world catering to their every whim. But they get early inklings that something is amiss in Fillory, and meanwhile Quentin is restless to find a quest to go on. Quentin turns away from the first quest that presents itself, but then goes on what seems at first to be a routine voyage.
Quentin is not a particularly good king at the start of the book, although he seems to mean well — he takes an interest in a few of his subjects and holds a nice tournament, and stuff. But he hasn't ever taken responsibility, for the land he governs or for his own mistakes. He wants to be a hero, but he doesn't have a fully formed idea of what that means, and what it means to sacrifice for the greater good. And being a king means that sometimes the sacrifices he makes are not his own life or person, but those of his followers.
The structure of this book is different from that of the first one — this time around, Quentin's journey is interspersed with a series of flashbacks showing what happened to Julia, Quentin's old friend from Brooklyn who didn't get into the magical school of Brakebills but learned magic on her own. The Julia flashbacks run parallel with the events of the first book, and reach their culmination at the end of the second book — so in effect, we're getting a very different version of the magical origin story from the first book.
Julia remembers her failed Brakebills audition, despite the school's memory-falsifying spells, and spends months on futile efforts to learn magic until she finally masters one spell. Then she joins a secret online group of geniuses with mental health problems or severe depression, before finally stumbling on an underground illicit magical scene, in which various "safe houses" guard magical secrets and award points to people who can master certain spells. (The points are in the form of awesome tattoos, which I could totally see people copying, a la Jacqueline Carey.)
Unlike Quentin, who basically has the world of magic offered to him by his super-elite school, and then gets a free trip to the magical land of Fillory, Julia has to work for everything she gets. Her journey illuminates how much privilege Quentin has had, but it also shows another way to be an overachiever: Julia goes from being a neophyte in the underground magic scene to being one of its queens, because she is an uber-nerd who never quits working and learning. And Julia's journey is a tribute to the creativity and dogged weirdness of nerds, especially when she's chasing clues in the form of geocaching, or puzzles, or obscure dial-up BBSes. It becomes a terrific love letter to geek culture.
Meanwhile, we slowly find, in the story's present, that Julia (who's also a ruler of Fillory) is weirdly damaged and may not be quite human any more. We discover the truth about what's happened to Julia in the final flashback — and it's both horrifying and perhaps a bit too gratuitous, given that nothing else of the sort happens to any other characters, in either book. (I won't give away what happens here, but you can read a discussion of it over at Goodreads. Suffice to say that it was the one moment in the book that didn't sit right with me, and threatened to mar an otherwise great book.)
In any case, the contrast of Julia's story with Quentin's adds a lot more richness to the second book, and it opens up the world in a really rewarding fashion. And Grossman's narrative voice gets to expand — there are, in effect, three main characters in this book: Quentin, Julia and the narrator, who is clearly a separate presence commenting with a fair degree of snarkiness on everything that happens. In the first book, the narrator's snark could be confused with Quentin's, but this time around it's present and identical in both the Quentin and Julia sections, and it's a major factor in the readability and fun of the book.
Some of the funniest, bitchiest moments come when Julia is working her way through the bottomfeeders of magic, in search of people who actually know stuff, and using sex to get her way. Grossman writes: "If all else failed she had the power of the bathroom handjob, and she wielded it with an iron fist." Writing about Julia's disappointment with the crappiness of most of the magic she's learned so far, he writes:
Put it another way: how many coin flips could one girl predict? How many nails could she protect from rust? The world was not in urgent need of more demagnetized magnets. This was magic, but it was chickenshit magic. She had tuned into the choir invisible, and it was singing game-show jingles. She'd put her entire life down as a deposit on this stuff, and it was starting to look like she'd been taken.
Part of the enjoyment of Grossman's writing is its self-awareness, its slight self-mockery even, as if Grossman is addressing a hypothetical audience of readers who are themselves magic-users. Or rather, an audience who have grown up with fantasy stories and nerd touchstones — it's like there's an essay about fantasy intertwined with the bones of the story here, and including two POV characters makes it a bit easier to see.
As in the first book, Grossman is a master of plotting and structure, so that big reveals seem to come out of nowhere until you realize they were carefully set up. In the first book, it was mostly revelations about the Chatwin family and their roles in the history of Fillory. This time around, the interwoven sections about Julia's awesome-but-tragic exploration of mysticism dovetail with the story of Quentin's quest to save Fillory from what turns out to be a much bigger threat than anybody realizes.
In the end, The Magician King is still very much about what it means to be an overachiever, and how that intersects with privilege — many, if not most, overachievers are from a privileged background in real life, and yet that doesn't negate the amount of work, pig-headedness and OCD that goes into being really really good at something. All of that work can blind overachievers to the component of their success that they were given as a free ride, and it also serves to camouflage inherited privilege as something that's completely earned, as though we all started from nothing. Both things can be true: You got an unfair advantage, and you worked your butt off.
One great thing about the inclusion of the Julia sections in this book is that we get to see someone who is an overachiever, but who looks to her parents and old friends like an underachiever. She has a chance to get into every top college in the United States, thanks to the Brakebills people trying to put her off the scent, but she throws it away for a life of temping and trundling around the countryside trying to learn magic. She finally does hit the jackpot, only to wind up looking like a burned-out wreck.
Unlike The Magicians, The Magician King offers a sort of answer to the question of what to do with privilege. Quentin finally gains a measure of maturity, and becomes a decent king, when he cops to one of his big mistakes in the first book: When Julia first came to him and asked him about magic, he shouldn't have turned her away out of fear of losing his own position at Brakebills. Everything that Julia goes through is in part a result of Quentin's selfishness and dickery, and when he finally takes that on board, he becomes something like a hero.