The people at goodreads were right -- the sequel to The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is much better. With the pastiches out of the way, the plot picks up quite a bit, and the last chapters in particular are enthralling. Beckett has also taken all the disparate elements of the the first book -- rogue planets, magicians, illusionists, witches, deadly woods, weird day lengths, politics -- and started to tie them all together coherently. I've already started the third novel and I'm excited to see what happens next.
My only complaint with the second (and, to a lesser extent, the first) book is the large portion devoted to the Eldyn character. While he is a genuinely likeable character, it is not at all clear yet how his story is going to tie in with the others, or the over-arching plot, so a lot of this felt like a waste of time. Moreover, it is his storyline that involves Beckett's analogue to the Catholic Church, and (no surprise) I was quite disappointed with the results. While Eldyn's interest in becoming a priest was handled sensitively, by the end of this book it was clear that the Altanian Church was home to corrupt hypocrites and unforgiving puritans -- a depiction all too common nowadays. And it was completely unnecessary! Just a few character tweaks here and there, and Beckett could have had the exact same plot results without having every religious figure be a jerk. In fact, given that many religions throughout history and in literature often claim to be the light that fights against the dark, it stands to reason that the Church here would be a valuable ally against the Ashen.
The rest of the book more than made up for this, and like I said, I'm onto the last volume now. I'm so glad I started this trilogy after all three volumes had been published!