In this second volume of the arc that began with The Magicians, Grossman continues to explore a magical world viewed in a strictly realist mode. Our focus again is Quentin Coldwater, who has graduated from Brakebills, the secret university of magic. In the company of his classmates, he’s bored and self-involved and he’s one of four kings of Fillory, a world of magic. But things are not quite right, and neither is Quentin, though nobody (least of all him) knows quite what’s wrong. Efforts to fix things inevitably lead to worse.

The brilliant thread here lies not with Quentin (who is something of a dope) but with Julia, the girl he admired back in his Brooklyn high school and whom he forgot after she failed the Brakebills entrance exam. The sorting hat sorted her out and she was supposed to forget the whole thing. Somehow, the spells of forgetting that were supposed to erase the memory of magic don’t quite work — she’s too smart, she sees the fuzzy edges in her memories — and these lead her into a dark subculture of underground magic, riddled with drugs and desperation. It turns out there’s an underground world of people who didn’t get into a good school, a world of community college magicians who swap tips and tattoos in dingy basement hangouts.

Julia is a student who will do anything for knowledge. There is a price to pay, and she pays it, but it’s not just a big bank loan.