In the two years since he was rescued from a mundane life among ordinary mortals, at the end of The Magicians, Quentin has realized his childhood dream of becoming a king of Fillory, the neo-Narnia of a series of children's novels. But all is not well. Quentin is restless. Like many young adult's before him, the realization of a childhood goal has not brought him complete satisfaction. Quentin's yearning for something more launches him, and fellow ruler Julia, on a voyage that begins as an entertaining vacation, but evolves into a quest to save Fillory (and many another world) from destruction at the hands of the old gods who seek to rewrite reality to take magic out of it. It is a quest that will ultimately explain a great many unanswered questions from The Magicians as to the origins an nature of magic.
On this quest the reader will learn the history of Julia, whose road to magical prowess was far darker than Quentin's. Devastated by her discovery of a world of magic she was barred from entering, Julia learns her skills on the streets, in an underground of amateur wizardry that the scholars of Brakebills scarcely know exists. Quentin's story was that of the bored, affluent Ivy League bound nerd delighted to discover magic and magic schools really exist. Julia's is that of the depressed, angry goth who works for her magic in shabby safe houses and on the streets of New York. Her path ultimately takes her among overly-daring wizards who would attempt things that the academically trained scholars of Brakebills never would, in a story linked to the catastrophe that looms over Fillory.
This is a dark book written for adult sensibilities. Grossman clearly loves the genre, and is not afraid to take up its conventions and turn them on their heads. He is writing for an adult audience who grew up loving it as he did, who might be delighted to discover that magic is real. But the reality turns out not to be quite like it is in the books. There are no perfect heroes, merely flawed and messed-up human beings. There is not great war between good and evil to provide moral guidance. Instead, we find magically enhanced echoes of the kinds of issues everyone faces. As in The Magicians, a broad streak of humor runs through the book, though in this volume it has evolved into something more wry than snarky. The change rather befits Quentin's maturation from troubled teen into an adult seeking his life's direction.
Direction he does find. By novel's end the ever-yearning Quentin has grown into a responsible hero Quentin. But along the way Quentin discovers life's lessons can be difficult. The closer you come to understanding cosmic mysteries the less interesting things may become, and there is a price inherent to being a hero. At some point he'll discover that as unsatisfying as the realization of a childhood dream can be, they can also be something one does not wish to leave behind when the time comes.