So I’m about to highly recommend the second book of a series while heavily discouraging you from reading the first book. While this may seem somewhat unusual, I have my reasons. Lev Grossman’s The Magician King is an excellent novel, full of memorable characters and a fantastic world grounded in reality and is exponentially better than The Magicians, the book it is a sequel to.
Before I explain why though, I should probably say what the books are about. The Magicians is set in Brakebills Academy, a college that teaches magic. Our main character, Quentin Coldwater, is at first delighted to be accepted into this school since he thinks that that will take him from his dissatisfication with life and make him happy. Unfortunately, he begins to find out that learning magic is much like learning any skill: long, tedious, hard, and often times boring. He begins to dream about the land of Fillory, the fictional magical kingdom in a Narnia-like series of books called Fillory and Further, where he thinks he will finally be happy. After graduation, he finds out that Fillory is actually real and journeys there with some friends. However, Fillory is not as nice as the books made it out to be. Through a series of events that we will skip over to avoid spoilers, Quentin and some of his friends become rulers of Fillory.
The Magician King picks up from there, with Quentin bored (again) and looking for adventure. However, going on a voyage to collect taxes from a distant island of Fillory lands both him and one of his co-rulers and old friend Julia back on Earth, with no real idea about how to get back. While they search for a way back, the book also explores the damaged character of Julia, who was actually rejected from entering Brakebills, and her past search to learn magic, no matter the cost.
So why do I like The Magician King so much more than The Magicians? Mainly because Quentin does not grow at all in The Magicians. He starts off as a bratty, whiny, disastisfied teenager, and at the end of the book, he is still pretty much a bratty, disastisfied, pretentious, whiny adult. The entire book is from his point of view, and oh my god was that a bad idea. Quentin is always complaining about how he isn’t happy, and the best part of that book was when his girlfriend Alice calls him out on it. On the other hand, in The Magician King not only does Quentin gradually manage to mature, but the book also focuses on Julia, a much more interesting character who has much more legitimate reasons than Quentin to be depressed (to be fair though, Quentin does have more legitimate reasons to angst after some of the events at end of The Magicians). It’s much less bogged down with Quentin’s constant whining, which is an excellent improvement.
So what about the other characters? I suppose the most honest statement would be that they are very realistic. They have their bad sides (some of them are downright nasty, I’m looking at you, Janet) but at the same time they do try to occasionally do good. (Although, I have to mention that some of Quentin’s most annoying moments come from his constant desire to be a hero. It really doesn’t work out). I actually really liked Alice, who was very nice for the most part, and I always thought she could do so much better than Quentin. Julia, I have to say is a much stronger protagonist than Quentin, even though she’s also quite self-destructive. There is almost an element of Greek tragedy about her because it was her endless pursuit of magical power that leads to almost all of the destructive effects that have happened to her. You might not exactly like the cast of the series, but you will most likely at least keep reading.
The setting and plot are excellent. Brakebills is less Hogwarts (which people keep comparing it to, but really I don’t think they’re much alike) and more a small liberal arts college that specializes in magic, complete with pretentious college students and long periods of lazy days punctuated by bursts of frantic studying. Fillory is like a darker Narnia, a Narnia where in the forests lurk malevolent creatures that are not so easily defeated. And the plot keeps you hooked and reading deep into the night, with enough twists to make things very interesting.
So can you read the second book without reading the first? Yes, since you only need a very basic idea of what happened in the previous book to understand the second, and I highly recommend it so you can skip most of Quentin’s whining. Grossman has also announced that he will be writing another book to the series, called The Magician’s Land (that based on the second book should be pretty good), and there seems to be a movie in the works, so go ahead and start the series now!