Shades of Magic

Back in January I wrote generally favorably about the first book in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy, A Darker Shade of Magic. Since then, I had the chance to blow through the two remaining books, A Gathering of Shadows and A Conjuring of Light, finding them to be equally compelling reads.

A Gathering of Shadows picks up several months after the events in A Darker Shade of Magic. On the one side, Kell Maresh chafes against the restrictions imposed after the events of the previous book that drive home that he is a tool of the throne rather than a member of the family. On the other, Delilah Bard enjoys her dream career, that of pirate on the high seas of the Red World. However, she is not the captain of her own ship, but a thief in the employ of an exiled Arnesian nobleman named Alucard Emery. Despite grumbling that he should have had her killed Alucard takes a liking to Lila and helps fan the flames of her nascent magical talent.

Kell and Lila are not destined to remain apart for long. The centerpiece of this novel is the Essen Tasch, a competition that brings together the best elemental magicians from the three empires—Arnes, Faro, and Vesk—to compete for the title of champion. The home country to the previous year’s competition also earns the right to host the next event, so Rhy Maresh is busy making arrangements. A gifted magician in his own right, Alucard has it in mind to enter the competition, much as Rhy arranges things so that Kell can enter the competition anonymously. Of course, Lila doesn’t want to be left out, either.

While the games proceed in Red London, though, a threat is brewing in White London. Holland, who Kell believes dead and locked away in Black London, has struck a deal with a powerful piece of sentient magic known as Osaron who promises that he can breathe life into White London in return for freedom.

Where the first novel in the series could stand alone, these two are of a piece. A Conjuring of Light picks up almost immediately from the end of the Essen Tasch, setting the our heroes on a race to defeat Osaron before he entirely consumes the world.

The primary difference between the two novels is the number of characters it follows. Holland, for instance, takes a more central role than in either of the previous two books, and the thriller-paced plot is interspersed with flashbacks into his life and upbringing that aim to strip away his icy, unfeeling exterior and offer him as a tragic idealist in love with his home in a way that leaves sad overtones to the novel as a whole. But A Conjuring of Light also introduces the point of view of characters such as Maxim and Emira Maresh, the King and Queen of Arnes, which both serves to offer depth and history to a story that had otherwise felt very present to me and serves to foreground the personal conflicts that had previously only been hinted at. Where hostility between Kell and Alucard over a relationship between Alucard and Rhy was introduced in the previous book, here we learn what happened, and Emira Maresh’s story explores Kell’s conflicted position in the royal family.

Overall, the development of this series worked. I found it compulsively readable and the individual characters fun, while the subsequent books answered some of my modest issues with the world-building. Schwab also generally does a nice job building the development of character in each subsequent book from hints laid out earlier in the series, unlike, say, the Sword of Truth series where subsequent books often felt like Goodkind kept inventing new powers for his characters. For instance, the revelation that Lila is also an Antari, that is someone with one black eye who can use all four elements and blood magic, should not have come as a surprise to anyone who noted that she was introduced to use as a character with a false eye. Developments to how being an Antari works came only from things that were external to them as Antari.

And yet, for all of its propulsive plots, something about the Shades of Magic series left me mildly unsatisfied. The explanation, I think, is that I found most of the people outside of our main characters superficial. This lack of depth gives the sensation that you’re ripping through the world alongside your heroes and avoids the criticism of, say, George RR Martin where he built minor characters into fixtures in ways that bloat the series. However, it also results in a variety of flat characters whose notes are either to be sympathetic such that we mourn with the heroes when they die or villainous such that we shake our fists when they turn on us. These characters fit the needs of the plots well enough, but being able to frequently predict which minor characters are all-but doomed to die undercuts the effect. What’s more, this flatness also prevented them from becoming the memorable minor characters that populate my favorite fantasy series and deepen those worlds in ways that make me want to keep coming back to them.

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I have fallen far behind on writing about books for a whole host of reasons, but keep meaning to get back to doing this. I have a stack of recent reads next to me, including Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine and Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, two noirs that I recently read and hope to write about together, as well as Mark Kurlansky’s Salt, a detailed commodity history without a clear through-line that I could identify, and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, a novel about art and counter-culture that I simultaneously understood the critical praise for and left me wondering whether I’m simply not a sophisticated enough reader to fully-appreciate. I am now about halfway through Robert Massie’s Dreadnought, which I had, perhaps naively, hoped would contain more, well, ships.

A Darker Shade of Magic

There is something unique about London––all four of them. Kell casually calls the four worlds by their relationship to magic, grey for its absence, red for its richness, white for its drained look, and black for its purity, and each of them has a London in the exact same spot. Once, these cities lay open to each other, serving as a conduit from one world to the other, but those days have long since past. Now there are barriers. Black London locked away from the other three and its objects eliminated with gates erected between the other three so that only Antari can pass between them and strict prohibitions against transporting objects from where they belong.

Kell is one of two only two Antari (that he knows of) and thus serves the royal family of Red London, who also adopted him and raised him with their natural son, as a courier. The other Antari, Holland serves the same role for the throne of White London, a crueler and altogether more inhospitable place. But Kell is also a collector of miscellany from the other worlds, smuggling them into his own private collection and, from time to time, selling the trinkets to other collectors. Rhy insists this hobby will only lead to trouble, but Kell simply can’t help himself until his brother is proven correct.

In a White London tavern, Kell is contracted to carry a black stone to Red London, but, instead of a simple delivery, he is ambushed, wounded, and forced to make a sudden escape to Grey London where he stumbles into a street thief named Lila Bard whose help he will need if he is to live. To make matters worse, though, is that the stone seems to have a mind of its own and a desire to possess sentient beings to achieve its ends, whatever they might be.

A Darker Shade of Magic bears some of the marks of being the first book in a trilogy, but also stands on its own as an energetically-paced romp of a book that blends perilous action and something of a reverse-heist that circles a central mystery. Neither Kell nor Lila are particularly deep characters, at least at this stage, but they are both fun protagonists loosely of the “gentleman thief” archetype and the worlds are nothing if not vividly-painted.

However, for as much as I enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic, one relatively minor point of world building rubbed me the wrong way. One of the central conceits of the novel is there are four worlds of very different character, each of which has a London in the same spot and in roughly the same shape. Grey London is the one we are familiar with, while Red London has a celebratory fairie aura and White London has an austere severity with loose Scandinavian influences (as though the Danes had held onto England). As far as the story goes, I had no problems with the worldbuilding or flavor, even though it led to a particularly Anglo-centric flavor for each of the worlds.

What pushed this beyond simply a quirk of the story for me was the repeated assertion that each world had sources of magic that resonated across barriers and the two named in the book are the Thames River and Stonehenge: both in Britain. The infatuation with the Thames, in particular, which served no narrative purpose in the story, struck me as contributing to an impression not of a world with magic, but of a particularly magical Britain. On the whole this is arguably style rather than substance, but in a world that continues to deal with the destructive reverberations of centuries of colonialism and the ongoing reality of racist and imperial agendas, this small point oriented the world in a way that marred an otherwise excellent book.

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I’ve fallen a bit behind on blogging with the semester, but recently finished Alyson Hagy’s Scribe and Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I don’t know what fiction book I’ll start next, but I recently picked up a bunch of books I’m excited to read and this morning I started reading David Gooblar’s The Missing Course.