While I didn’t fall in in love with V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, I quite enjoyed it, giving it four stars in my review. Schwab is back in this universe now with a sequel, A Gathering of Shadows (2016), which carries forward the strengths of the first book, making for yet another strong story.
Set four months after the events of book one (and yes, you’ll definitely want to read book one if you haven’t and possibly wish to skim it or find an online synopsis if you have), A Gathering of Shadows splits its time between Kell and Lila as each tries to move on with their lives after what happened earlier. For Lila, this means running from “the familiar” and also from the possibility of caring about someone (and being cared about in turn) by finding a place aboard a pirate, ahem, privateer ship captained by the charming Alucard Emery. Kell, meanwhile, is back tied to Red London’s royal family and feeling even more trapped and mistrusted in his role as their most powerful magician. Those who recall how A Darker Shade of Magic ended will know at least part of the reason he feels even more tightly bound. While Lila worms her way into the pir — privateer crew, Red London prepares for the “Essen Tasch” — a once-every-few-years magical competition pitting over a dozen magicians from the three rival nations against one another. Kell’s brother (not by blood, as Kell is adopted), Prince Rhy, is in charge of running the games, and the competition ends up serving as the means by which all the characters are eventually brought together. Finally, a third storyline, much shorter in terms of page time, covers events in another London, the version that had lost its magic but that now seems to perhaps be getting it back.
Schwab takes her time setting events in motion, getting the characters into place, and then reuniting them. This slow pace, which may admittedly be too slow for some, allows for some in-depth characterization. The reader truly starts to feel the fervent sense of being trapped that Kell has — part of it due to his family ties (mostly his love for his brother), part of it due to his sense of duty to the kingdom, and part of it due to the major event that closed book one. His urgent wish for freedom even as he makes no move toward that goal nicely parallels Lila’s story in that she constantly makes her own way free, but at the cost of those same bonds of loyalty, friendship, family, and intimacy that entangle Kell.
In fact, one could argue that Lila has slipped so far from such human ties that she’s tipped over into fully psycho/sociopath mode, which I’m not quite sure how to read, to be honest. In nearly all ways, she is wonderfully engaging and compelling, but the blithe manner in which she murders or contemplates murder is more than a little disturbing, and I’m unsure if we’re supposed to be so disturbed or if Schwab doesn’t quite realize how it comes across. I’m guessing the former, only because Schwab has shown herself to be such a good writer, but it does make for some uncomfortable reading (not that that’s a bad thing).
The other characters fare equally well: Rhy proves himself changed by events of book one, while Alucard is introduced as an intriguingly mysterious character and then revealed to be a man of many depths/secrets. We even learn a surprising amount about one of Kell’s guards, a relatively minor character who gets little page time but one whom I grew quite fond of by the end. Because of this level of characterization, whether dealing with the two main characters or the others, A Gathering of Shadows carries a nice bit of emotional heft to it in multiple scenes and involving multiple character interactions.
On the down side of the pacing, the book does feel maybe just a bit overlong, though part of that may be due to the cliffhanger ending that makes it feel a little like it was a long slow set-up for book three. That said, I read through it in just two sittings and only felt it lag a few times and only for a brief period. And I loved the deftness with which Schwab handled the tournament. Many an author I’m thinking would have greatly padded those sections (I’m looking at you, Triwizard Tournament!), but after the first round descriptions, which were interesting, tense, and necessary to set us up knowledge-wise, she smoothly zips through the contests with just enough description to keep us interested and not enough so our attention starts to flag.
As mentioned, the ending is a cliffhanger, as the villain makes their big move right at the very close. I won’t say much about the “villainy” so as to avoid spoilers, save to say that it has a nice bit of complexity to it and introduces another interesting character, though we spend almost no time with her.
A Gathering of Shadows is more character- driven and less plot-driven than its predecessor and that, combined with its slow pace, may make some think it falls somewhat prey to bridge book syndrome, mostly there to set us up for the final book of the trilogy. But I enjoyed the pacing and the rich characterization, and my guess is that the action will pick up pretty strongly in book three, which I, for one, am looking forward to.
As Bill thoughtfully wrote, this one is all about the characters. Schwab does an amazing job revealing the hidden depths of characters from book one, and it’s very exciting to follow along as this happens. Kell’s mysterious past becomes ever more important (and ever more mysterious), and I found myself becoming more and more invested in his story throughout this masterpiece. Moreover, the world building in this sequel is fantastic, as Schwab does a fantastic job creating nations and forces beyond he Londons that we’ve already seen. This is a must read for anyone who’s read book one!
I loved the opening of A Gathering of Shadows, where we see Lila at serious risk… and then watch her handle it. It’s four months after the events of A Darker Shade of Magic and, in Red London, Lila has achieved one dream of hers. She’s part of a pirate crew — only, as Bill pointed out, they have paperwork from the crown, so they’re really privateers. The languid, elegant and enigmatic captain Alucard Emery (who — not a spoiler — is not a vampire) is teaching her more about her magic and things are going well. Things aren’t as good back at the palace, where Kell is brooding some more about the ties of love, duty and magic that bind him to the place, and Rhy wondering some more if he’ll ever be good enough, or something. Fortunately, the magical version of the Olympics is coming up, the Element Games, and that serves as a great distraction for everyone, and allows the villain from White London to slip in easily and generally wreak havoc.
While I enjoyed A Gathering of Shadows for all the reasons I liked the first book, I thought it went on too long. Part of the problem was the inclusion of The Element Games. We have characters planning to compete undercover, we have political jockeying and champions trash-talking one another, but the games are not the primary focus of the story. To me, they still took up a lot of time. And past a certain point, I didn’t feel we were seeing much character development here either. The exception, again, is the character of Holland.
I did love the descriptions of places, the magical armor the contestants wore, and the scenes on the ship with Dracula — I mean Alucard. And I got to like Alucard even though he seems the least developed. He is a type rather than a fully developed character, but he is a fun type and I enjoyed him.
This is still a different spin on magical systems and multiverses and I am still enjoying the series even if this book did go on too long. Be aware that it ends on a cliffhanger.