With 2009's The Magicians, Lev Grossman introduced readers to the dazzlingly imaginative wizarding world of Brakebills Academy, its angsty, college-aged students, and a premise that asked, "What if finding out you could do magic didn't fix anything that was wrong with your life? What if it made it worse?" More like the books of Bret Easton Ellis than J.K. Rowling, it's an amazing feat of storytelling that simultaneously manages to be the most magically exciting and horrifically depressing story you've ever read.
The Magician King picks up where The Magicians left off, and is even better than its predecessor. Brakebills graduate Quentin and his friends are the rulers of Fillory, a magical world that pays serious homage to Narnia - right down to having a series of beloved children's books written about it, and an Aslan-inspired character named Ember, an annoyingly cryptic ram who also happens to be Fillory's god.
Despite reigning in peace and luxury over the idyllic fantasy world he read about as a child, Quentin has the nerve to become bored, and longs for a good old-fashioned heroic quest. He finds his adventure readily enough, but almost immediately realizes that the stakes are much higher than he imagined.
Quentin isn't alone on his quest, however. Julia - his friend, Brakebills Academy reject, and a fellow ruler of Fillory - joins him. In alternating chapters, Grossman takes us on Quentin's quest, and also fills in Julia's mysterious back story. We learn how she studied magic not in the relative safety of Brakebills, but through hodgepodge collectives of self-taught charlatans and posers, sketchy hedge witches, and misfit geniuses. A minor character in The Magicians, Julia takes center stage here, and positively steals the show.
If The Magicians was about how magic won't fix your life, The Magician King is about how it's worth fighting for anyway. And, of course, it's no great intuitive leap for a reader to substitute any number of beliefs, passions, and pursuits for "magic."
Should you harbor suspicions that magical worlds and talking dragons do not exactly make for age-appropriate reading material, cast them aside. No less a personage than C.S. Lewis once wrote, "The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all." And being too grown-up for talking dragons would be a very poor reason to deprive yourself of the pleasure of reading Grossman's books.