I've long argued that one of the distinguishing marks of fantasy is an ongoing of what it means to be human, usually by placing humanity beside the fantastical. What Grossman has done with these two books is to have that same sort of conversation by placing irrevocably human characters beside the literary stereotype of humanity from the fantastic genre. This is the power of genre-busting, a necessary cleansing of the tropes and clichés to get back to the roots of the power of the genre. As the foundation of speculative fiction grows broader as well as deeper, the current generation of writers have that much more history to work against. In the Golden Age, it was simply enough to ask a different "What if" question than had been asked before. Not that every question has been answered by the genre, but those types of stories become formulaic, and the works of authors like Grossman (and Mieville and Banks and so on) remind us of that history as it works to build something new from it.
As I mentioned in my thoughts on The Magicians, the protagonist of The Magician King, Quentin Coldwater, dances on the line between likeability and not so much. He is not utterly unlikeable, like Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant, but he is a hormonal and self-doubting young man who morosely questions nearly every move he makes—the opposite of the forthright hero of the fantasy genre. in The Magician King, however, Quentin is balanced by a long-time friend, Julia, who suddenly appears with as much magical skill and power as Quentin, if not more. Her history alternates with the ongoing thread of Quentin's adventure, providing a compelling view of magical powers gained by the most unorthodox of means, allowing Grossman to do more genre-busting from a different direction. Julia is a far more likeable character as she is a lot of things that Quentin is not, decisive and forthright, willing to do whatever it takes to reach her goals. She does face uncertainty at times, but it is because of questions posed on her by forces outside herself, while Quentin is continually handed everything he could want and still ponders his navel.
Together with an interesting cast of side characters, Quentin and Julia decide to travel the eastern sea of Fillory, Grossman's Narnia surrogate. The adventure feels very much like C. S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (book, not movie), complete with whimsical rationale for travelling. But after the adventurers complete their trivial task, they uncover an old legend and set about on a far bigger quest. And when that one goes all to heck, sending Quentin and Julia back to Earth with no way to return to Fillory, everything takes a decidedly more serious turn.
Grossman's writing is compelling; again I found it difficult to set the book down for a more than a few minutes. It's not just the story he tells, but he has so mastered the voices of his characters that you can feel them in your head as they narrate. Part of the complete "rightness" of the voices is they are products of their culture and time. Pop culture references abound, not because it's cool to reference other media in narration, but because young adults in their mid-20s would obviously have cultural signifiers that they would all be aware of. Heck, in my conversations with my mid-40s friends, the cultural references pile up like snow in Buffalo. Ironically, these references actually make the characters more accessible for me though years down the road, when a new reader doesn't know the same references, the narration will lose that level of familiarity. I nearly busted a gut at the perfectly appropriate Friends reference in the middle of a vital conversation. The content and context clash beautifully and realistically, setting up expectations and knocking them down, like the rest of the elements of the book. And Grossman's humor is wicked in other ways as well, piling up another reason why this book is just fun and capable of sustaining eventual rereadings.
It's tempting to say that the genre-busting that Lev Grossman practices in The Magicians is transformed into blatant cynicism in The Magician King, but I don't think it goes that far. The difficulty lies in the nature of the genre that Grossman is busting, the young adult fantasy novel. One of the distinguishing characteristics of that kind of novel is that the path they take is generally optimistic—there may be threats and villains to deal with, but given the expected audience, the outcome is always positive. Some people may be injured or die, but the protagonist comes through at the end if not unscathed then a better person than how they began the story. It's not at all clear that this is the case by the conclusion of The Magician King (or The Magicians either for that matter).
I've seen mentioned elsewhere that these books are part of a planned trilogy, the final book of which I look forward to reading upon its release. But true to his writing skill, Grossman ends this book in such a way that it doesn't need a sequel and yet the door remains open for one. I can honestly say I have no idea where he will take these characters next because I have utterly failed to predict how any of them have turned out in these first two novels. How delightful is that?