In my review of The Magicians, I described my ambivalence for Grossman's first novel in the series. Although I found the themes he explored fascinating, the novel itself was at times tiresome. I ended the review by saying, "When my husband and I finished listening to the audiobook, one of our first questions to each other was, 'Would you read the sequel?' I still haven't determined my answer." Well, it turns out I answered that question quickly and affirmatively as I finished The Magician King less than a month later.
The Magician King felt like a much different book than The Magicians. Some of that is probably due to reading the book (rather than listening to the audiobook version) since the pace felt quicker. Nonetheless, I think most of the change is due to the structure of The Magician King. In The Magicians, Grossman is concerned with exploring magic in the real world we know, and his novel is full of dissatisfied characters musing about their dissatisfaction with life. Most of the story takes place at Brakebills, so there's not much in terms of a narrative plotline. No evil to fight; no quest to undertake.
However, in The Magician King, the protagonist Quentin is already in a magical world when the novel begins, and, like a dissatisfied reader yearning for adventure, Quentin partakes on a quest early in hopes of finding the sense of purpose in life that has always eluded him. For the reader, this means that, from the start, something is always happening. There's none of the boredom and drunkenness that characterized much of The Magicians. Instead, Quentin is traveling far and wide, encountering strange creatures and mysterious islands. This doesn't mean that interesting themes aren't explored: the restlessness of magic; what is means to be a hero. However, these themes are explored while "stuff" happens, which is a lot more interesting to the reader.
The Magician King also flashbacks frequently to tell the story of Julia, Quentin's high school friend who, after failing to pass the Brakebills examination, discovered magic on her own. Her torturous journey to find belonging forms a nice parallel to Quentin's experiences at Brakebills (but is a lot more interesting).
In all, The Magician King was a far more enjoyable read than The Magicians, though I'm not sure the second book left me thinking as much as the first.