Review: A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

Title: A Gathering of Shadows
Author: V.E. Schwab
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: It has been four months since a mysterious obsidian stone fell into Kell’s possession. Four months since his path crossed with Delilah Bard. Four months since Prince Rhy was wounded. And four months since the stone was cast with Holland’s dying body through the rift–back into Black London. As Red London finalizes preparations for the Element Games, a certain pirate ship draws closer, carrying old friends back into port. And while Red London is caught up in the pageantry and thrills of the Games, another London is coming back to life. After all, a shadow that was gone in the night will reappear in the morning. But the balance of magic is ever perilous, and for one city to flourish, another London must fall.


By all accounts, V.E. Schwab’s A Gathering of Shadows is a standard middle-book. It wraps up loose ends from its series opener, A Darker Shade of Magic; it advances the plot and world building of the series’ nineteenth-century historical fantasy setting; and it teases clues for the third Shades of Magic book, A Conjuring of Light. And I liked it – I did (there’s no waffling on that front); I just wish that maybe I had known a third book was coming before I dove into the first. (I can’t take the wait!!!!!)

RiverSongSpoilers

Instead of further exploring the setting she’s created, Schwab focuses A Gathering of Shadows on the Element Games – a tri-state tournament for practicing magicians – and relies heavily on this B plot to move the story forward. There are flashbacks to what happened in between the ending of A Darker Shade of Magic and the beginning of A Gathering of Shadows four months later, but Schwab forces most of the conflict from the secrets our protagonists keep from both one another and the rest of the ensemble cast. For instance, fearless lady pirate Delilah Bard keeps her true identity from her ship’s captain, Alucard Emery; Alucard keeps his lineage a secret from most of his crew and the source of Kell’s animosity toward him from the reader; and Kell keeps his entrance into the Element Games a secret from everyone but his brother, Rhy. And, well, there’s also the secret of what the heck happened to that piece of black magic Kell threw into Black London, hidden from both the reader and everyone in the book. (And I’ll just leave it at that, because, well, as River Song would say, “Spoilers!”[1])

I found three spelling mistakes in the hardcover edition, released in February 2016, and that makes me wonder if Schwab is perhaps rushing in order to make a late winter/early spring release date for all three novels. (You can basically chart the progress on the book’s Goodreads “Community Reviews” section and then go fangirl on her Tumblr.) Schwab is a strong writer and effectively paced A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows to both warrant a 450 average page count and keep her readers feverishly flipping through, but the first two parts of her Shades of Magic trilogy are strengthened by getting to binge both titles one after the other. Sure, I can read synopses of the two when A Conjuring of Light finally drops sometime next year – fingers crossed – but what I’ll really want to do is start from the first page of the first novel and go all the way through to the last page of the last novel. Schwab’s novels deserve that kind of commitment.

[1] Remember how I said I didn’t want Kell and Lila to end up together? Well… now I do.

Review: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Title: A Darker Shade of Magic
Author: V.E. Schwab
Rating: ★★★★½
Summary: Kell is one of the last Antari, a rare magician who can travel between parallel worlds: hopping from Grey London—dirty, boring, lacking magic, and ruled by mad King George—to Red London—where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire—to White London—ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne, where people fight to control magic, and the magic fights back—and back, but never Black London, because traveling to Black London is forbidden and no one speaks of it now. Officially the personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, Kell also smuggles for those willing to pay for even a glimpse of a world they’ll never see, and it is this dangerous hobby that sets him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save both his London and the others, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive—a feat trickier than they hoped.


I don’t know how A Darker Shade of Magic got on my radar or really what I was expecting, but it honestly was amazing and had me, like, whipping through chapters[i]. Schwab – better known for her young adult fiction written under her given name Victoria – weaves early nineteenth-century England with (hard? high?) fantasy into an engaging and engrossing fast-paced piece of world-building. *Ahem* Kell, our fearless ginger-haired protagonist is an Antari – a powerful Traveler magician capable of mastering all five elements[ii] – who officially travels between Londons[iii] as a diplomat of the Maresh empire of Arnes but also unofficially smuggles artifacts among the three cities until he’s tricked into delivering a letter into Red London (which has an inconspicuous piece of Black London tucked inside (oh hi, plot)). It is here, in a pub in Grey London, with a powerful piece of magic in his shape-shifting coat, that Kell meets our other fearless protagonist: a cross-dressing lady thief named Delilah Bard who is totally kickass and, shall we say, persuades Kell to bring her along with him. Hijinks ensure. (#whew)

A Darker Shade of Magic needs its world-building to succeed: not only because “fantasy [as a genre] tends to live or die on its world-building,” (thank you, Gizmodo) but also because, without it, Schwab’s readers are left scratching their heads in confusion. Why is Kell two-of-a-kind? And why is it so dangerous to have a piece of Black London? And, wait, what’s Black London again? And who is Rhy? And are we supposed to be rooting for Holland or not? And, I’m sorry, but WHAT IS GOING ON??? Schwab writes Lila as both a narrative counterweight to Kell AND a crutch for the reader – she is really freaking successful at building up the foundation that, yes, Magic™ exists but, no, not in the world that also produced the House of Hanover, okay – but it doesn’t feel like we’re being explained to past the first couple of chapters. Magic just is and the Londons just are, and Schwab’s writing is better for it.

The first part in a planned trilogy, A Darker Shade of Magic is part whodunit, part swashbuckling caper, and part coming-of-age. It is not, however, a romance – but that’s okay because Schwab writes such fascinating and faceted characters that the googly eyes most opposite-sex-partnerships make in traditional romances feels over-the-top and, frankly, unwarranted within the world she’s created. (But spoilerly thoughts if you want ‘em.[iv])  The action, although well-paced, felt slightly rushed into its resolution; so, either I was expecting a totally different ending or, well, nope – I was expecting a totally different ending. S’okay, though, as soon as I finished the book’s last page, I was still itching to get my grubby hands on its sequel, A Gathering of Shadows. I think that means Schwab’s foray into adult literature was a success.

[i] I would set my alarm for thirty minutes and then, like, blink and the alarm would go off… and I would think, “Has it only been a half hour? Wtf is going on???” And then I would set another thirty-minute alarm until it had been, about, three hours. #truestory

[ii] Bone, earth, fire, water, and wind; Kell also has one completely black eye and this amazing coat that he can turn inside out and outside in to reveal different coats when needed.

[iii] There are four Londons: Black London and White London and Red London (Kell’s London) and then Grey London (our London and the boring one without magic); Magic™ kind of, like, swallowed Black London, though, and nobody goes there anymore or even really mentions it.

[iv] I kept anticipating a kiss between Kell and Lila simply because they were written as vaguely attracted to one another, but every time a Romantic Moment™ would arrive and Kell and Lila didn’t kiss, I cheered. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy romance in stories, but it didn’t really feel like either Kell or Lila were ready to be in a romantic relationship, and it makes me so, so happy that Schwab didn’t push it just because we live in a heteronormative world and a nineteen-year-old girl and a twenty-one-year-old boy are “supposed” to end up together. Four for you, V.E. Schwab.

The Hold Shelf #1

Very rarely do I place library holds on new releases – either because I can’t predict when a book will find its way to me (when I’m in the middle of something else??) or because there just isn’t anything I absolutely have to read right away. And then there are these titles:

The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin: all I can say right now is some variation of this and this. Not only am I planning on reading The City of Mirrors right away, I’m about 110% sure that I am going to pre-order the hardcover copy because I AM SO READY FOR THIS BOOK.

A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab: after (basically) speed-reading through A Darker Shade of Magic, I knew I wouldn’t be able to wait very long for its sequel.

Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeffrey Seller: I am obsessed with this musical (and its soundtrack), okay. OBSESSED. I want need this in my grubby hands asap because reasons. (Also Lin is my queen.)

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay: after reading (and loving) Bad Feminist, anything Gay writes is pretty much going to be a “stop what you’re doing and read this right now” kind of deal – especially if its nonfiction.

A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold: not all school shootings get their own biographies (a la Columbine by Dave Cullen), and not all school shooters are revisited decades later, but, for better or worse, the tragedy at Columbine stands out. Cullen’s book is already on my tbr list, but reading A Mother’s Reckoning might push it up to the top.

Rosalie Lightning: A Graphic Memoir by Tom Hart: this book will probably make me cry (I’m sort of expecting it to), but, from what I’ve heard, it’s going to be amazing (in that heartbreaking sad kind of way).

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: I rarely get seized by literary FOMO – either something that “pops” sounds interesting and I put it on my tbr list to be revisited when the hype dies down (and library copies become available) or I do a little research and am, like, “eh, not for me” – but Kalanithi’s posthumous memoir is something I’m willing to wait months to read.