Let me begin this review by saying that I really enjoyed Lev Grossman's The Magicians, the 2009 novel to which The Magician King is a sequel. I didn't think it was perfect, by any means - I wasn't keen on the protagonist, the irritating and selfish Quentin - but altogether I found it to be an original, enjoyable, and gloriously escapist read. I will admit that I am not the biggest fan of all-out fantasy, but I liked the fact that The Magicians couched its fantastical elements in a recognisable version of the 'real world', which tends to be a difficult thing to pull off. Altogether, I'd been looking forward to this follow-up since it was first announced, and have had it on my wishlist since the title was confirmed. Therefore, it was a big disappointment, and a bit of a surprise, that I really didn't like it much at all.
The Magician King picks up some time after the end of the first book. Quentin and friends are still in Fillory, the Narnia-like magical alternate world, where they now reign as kings and queens. But typically, Quentin is restless and not particularly happy; he thinks there must be something more to achieve, and he sets off on a mission to recover taxes from a remote island, taking the increasingly aloof - and powerful - Julia with him. The story unfolds as a disjointed kind of quest that never really seems to go anywhere. There are moments of excitement, but what ends up happening is repeatedly anticlimatic. It's hard to tell whether this is intentional - obviously, the whole point of the Magicians books is to subvert the cosy stereotypes usually found in this type of tale. Either way, it feels very unsatisfying. Some chapters branch off into Julia's history, which I wanted to be interested in, but the book never quite shakes off the feeling that she's secondary to Quentin, plus she's just not very likeable - not to mention the fact that her story goes beyond ridiculous in the end.
And then there's the way it's all written, which I could talk about forever. There are knowing references to Harry Potter, Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Alice in Wonderland, etc everywhere - to the point, for example, of Brakebills (this world's school of magic) actually being referred to as Hogwarts. It's like being constantly nudged and winked at, like the book is continually making sure you're 'in on the joke'. In the same vein, there's far too much swearing. I couldn't care less about swearing in books, it certainly doesn't offend me, but it's shoved into the narrative so often that it just becomes exhausting. The repeated lazy usage of 'shit' to mean stuff/things particularly grates. I presume this is all to hammer home that these characters are adults, that this world is far from whimsical despite the presence of talking animals and magical islands. It's so unnecessary, though.
Part-way through reading the book, I highlighted this passage to demonstrate a perfect example of the style:
Of course Iris had every right. That's how the system worked. She was doing Julia a fucking favor. Babysitting the noob was evidently not considered a premium assignment at Murs, and she wasn't going to pretend to enjoy it. Which whatever, but this did not oblige Julia to pretend to be grateful either. Really she ought to dog it a few times, she thought, just to piss Iris off. Show her that Julia had nothing to prove. See how long it took her to lose her shit.I mean, 'noob'? 'Which whatever'? Fuck, piss and shit in one short paragraph for no real reason? Not long afterwards the word 'nomming' was seriously used, at which point I almost threw my Kindle at the wall. I get that the narrative is partly meant to represent the internal voice of Quentin/Julia, but god, it's irritating. And THE WHOLE BOOK is written like this. Afterwards, I had to find my copy of The Magicians to refresh my memory about the style - and yes, it had its fair share of profanity and slang, but The Magician King makes it look like a nominee for the Nobel prize for literature.
Perhaps this book will be more popular with readers more accustomed to and/or comfortable with fantasy fiction. Most of the events in Fillory, along with the climax of Julia's backstory, went too far into territory I found ludicrous and bizarre (in a bad way). I didn't like any of the characters, the interaction between Quentin and Poppy was sloppily done and unbelievable, and I really hated that Quentin was STILL hung up on the now-dead Alice having slept with Penny AFTER THEY SPLIT. Admittedly, I did at least feel compelled to keep reading right to the end; there's a few good bits, if you look for them. But it was a hard slog to finish and I doubt I'm going to be reading any further installments. Overall, sadly, this book was a mess.