After reading Lev Grossman's The Magicians I was left feeling just a tiny bit underwhelmed. Shouldn't a book that has a more adult take on the subject matter of Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia be a little more amazing? I mean, adult there was in the characters and the emotional tones of the book and even the sex scenes, but it didn't spark me like I'd hoped it would. Still, I was pretty sure I would pick up the sequel.
I'm glad I did. The second novel in the trilogy seemed somehow more involved, had more depth and complexity. Maybe it was the fact that the magical world had already been introduced and didn't need to be built? But oh, this book was much better by far.
At first I found the main storyline, Quentin's story, which alternately took place in Fillory and our wold to be somewhat underwhelming compared to the flash backward plotline of Julia, Quentin's pre-Brakebills friend. Watching her story unfold - how she became a magician through back channels and fought and fought for her powers and existence was much more compelling than Quentin's education had been, or what felt like meandering with no direction in the main plotline. Julia's story, start to end, is probably the single most compelling plotline in the book.
The real time storyline, following Quentin, did not engage me much at first.
About halfway through the book it started to really strengthen and built up a lot of momentum. Fillory is just, well, boring. Intentionally so, I think, and the way this plot point makes you think of things is quite well thought out. The grass is always greener, right? There's a beautiful tension here, illustrated in the character of Quentin himself about what we should want in life, what magic means, and how the world can fulfill our needs. Just because we chase or yearn after something with the thought that it will fulfill us doesn't mean that attainment fulfills us. Lifestyle inflation, magic form right there.
New and old characters are introduced here, with great and ill effect. The characters in the Julia storyline all exist for no other reason than to propel her character forward. Perhaps the best character in the book though was a new one: Poppy. Throughout the book I liked her more and more, though at the end of the book she makes a decision that is just so completely out of character that I don't know what to make of it.
The storyline with Penny and the Neitherlands, which really doesn't start to come into play until later in the book is perhaps the most intriguing. I don't want to go too into detail because I think you should read the book, but it really gets into the magic system of Grossman's world and in some ways I find the Neitherlands to be more "magical" than Fillory itself. Or at least more interesting.
This is apparently book two in a three book trilogy and it's very clearly set up that way. Even the ending isn't really an ending, which is fine by my reckoning because I'm genuinely interested in what comes next.