This novel was easily my favorite in the trilogy, for a few different reasons.
Perhaps it was because of the distance of writing in third person, or because Grossman can not as easily identify with Julia as he can with Quentin, but I absolutely thought that Julia’s “coming of age” narrative in this novel was much stronger than Quentin’s in the first installment of this trilogy. If Julia’s arc in season 1 of The Magicians television show interests you, this novel absolutely must be read. A lot of her journey gets short-shrift on screen. I completely understand that this is due to time constraints, and that essentially the show writers needed to make season 1 out of one and a half books in order to get Julia’s backstory in. All of the questions you might have about the Free Traders or their quest to find a real god is completely absorbing on page, and I’m always a fan of magic users having to deal with the consequences of using such power (and it gets pretty brutal).
For me, the television character of Julia is a bit annoying (though she does come into her own later in the season). Julia of book 1 in the series is kind of wonky. Julia in book 2 is delightfully weird and comes into her own with a bizarre sort of badassery. She is not a traditional “strong female character,” which just makes her all the more intriguing.
Of course, Quentin is still the hero of our story. One of the significant reasons that this was my favorite book out of the set is because Quentin’s journey is influenced heavily by my favorite Narnia book, Voyage of the Dawn Treader. (I’m not going to bother with the discussion of “influence” versus “whole-sale ripoff,” because if you’ve made it to the second book in the series, you know what to expect at this point.) I especially love the fact that his quest even bumps him back into “our” world for a time, and his struggle to return to Fillory, to his true home, is quite well done. (Also, dragons!)
Note: While you can’t read The Magician King as a stand-alone book, you can end the series here if you’re only interested in completing Julia’s story.
Currently reading: Star Trek Enterprise: Last Full Measure by Michael A. Martin and Andy Mangels (42%)