Lev Grossman is continuing to show Quentin Coldwater the dangers of having your dreams fufilled. An extension of the greener grass metaphor from the first book, Quentin sets off on a Lord of the Rings style quest to recover some taxes from a tiny outlying island. Desparate for a magical adventure, he sets off on a boat towards the end of the world. Overall he seems more content than the first book, but there's still something tugging at the back of his mind. I still consider it a major character victory that he addresses his disaffection repeatedly.
After the trip to Outer Island goes wonky, he ends up back on Earth without a magic button. After years in Fillory, Earth is expectedly a bit of a downer, but this is where the narrative separates a bit and we get to some of the strongest parts of the book. We start breaking off with hedge witch Queen Julia and live her past through a series of flashbacks. We also get to travel to Venice and Cork where Quentin continues to realize that he had written off a lot life without actually experiencing it. We get more strong supporting characters who can remind Quentin that other people deal with being alive too and still manage to solve problems. One of my favorites from the previous book, Josh, has set up in a Venitian palazzo and continues his nonchalant lifestyle. I welcomed the reoccurence of setpieces from the previous book, like the Neitherlands and Penny (who I felt didn't get resolved well enough) as well as a minor return to Brakebills.
It truly is Julia's backstory that makes the compelling story here. After the foray on Earth, we learn about a real Fillory quest, to get seven golden keys and take them to the end of the world to wind it up again. Julia's past is a key part of why this needs to happen and learning about her sacrifices and troubles brings a much more sympatheic foil to Quentin into the mix. She paid a lot more than Quentin did to get access to magic, and the scars it leave are deep and dark. Her resolution is poignant, bittersweet and gives me more confidence that Grossman has plans for his characters and the ability to resolve them gracefully.
Tying up all of this quest business and world hopping is a narrative about the origin of magic and the potential for magic to end, everywhere. But more interesting than the prospect of Fillory dying, magic ending, etc. is the quiet transformation of Quentin at the denoument of book. This time it really feels like it's going to stick, that Quentin will learn about loss and sacrifice and finding happiness outside of his dreams. Overall I feel like I was more involved while reading this book, less prone to putting it down and more eager to have a long subway ride to read on. I'm looking forwards to the third book, where hopefully Quentin will come fully into his own as a confident and powerful magician or die trying.