I guess I’m getting into a bad habit of thinking books are standalones when they aren’t.
That was the case for City of Stairs (now with sequel City of Blades) and it’s also the case for V.E. Schwab’s earlier novel A Darker Shade of Magic. A Darker Shade ranked very highly on my list of top books read year, so when I finally discovered (in January) that a sequel was coming out (in February), I marked my calendar to purchase it.
A Gathering of Shadows picks up some time after the first novel. Kell and Rhy are struggling to deal with their new lives (or rather, life singular). Rhy feels guilty, while Kell feels trapped, and they’ve found new ways to goad each other. Meanwhile, Lila Bard has joined the crew of privateer Alucard Emery and is sailing the seas of Red London’s world. They’re all brought together during theEssen Tasch, the Element Games – a fantasy version of the Olympics where magicians compete for crown and country. And a world away, an old face is plotting…
I’m going to come right out and say it – this book definitely has some major middle book syndrome. It doesn’t really have a plot of its own to speak of. Even the Element Games only take up about half the novel, and they don’t provide plot so much as a stage to explore the characters. So really, this book comprises primarily two things:
- Character exploration
- Setup for book three
And boy, does it ever deliver on both those fronts.
The majority of this book is spent exploring the characters, with a particular focus on Kell, Rhy and Lila. (You might call Alucard Emery the fourth, but we don’t get inside his head quite so much). And there’s oodles to explore.
Kell’s life is now bound to Rhy, and while he knew intellectually what that meant when he did it, he’s now reaping the consequences. The king and queen are loathe to let him go anywhere or do anything for fear of endangering their heir. Most of the kingdom blames Kell for the events of A Darker Shade of Magic, and though he hated being adored and worshipped, he loathes the fear he faces now even more. And there are hints of something darker that has taken root in Kell, something that makes him restless and gives him nightmares where he truly is terrifyingly powerful.
It was also nice to get to learn more about Rhy. In my opinion, Rhy got glossed over as a princely pretty boy in the first book, but this book gives him more dimension. We learn how much he truly does love and care for Kell. We learn how guilty he feels about the pain and feelings of entrapment his existence now causes for Kell, and we get a better understanding of his desire for strength and the pressures he faces from his father. He is a much more complex character than the first book gave him credit for, and he’s fun to read.
And then there’s Lila. I loved her parts of the book, because I see a lot of myself in her – tomboyish, wanting to do everything the men can do and not apologizing for it. Lila begins to discover her magic, and the book flirts with the is-she-or-isn’t-she-Antari question for its duration, culminating in a cliffhanger moment that will answer it one way or the other…in the next book. (I’ve suspected her of being Antari since book one, so I wouldn’t be surprised). We also explore her urge to run away from things that are familiar and why she seeks out danger (in short, because it makes her feel alive).
V.E. Schwab handles all of this characterization deftly, using the events of the Essen Tasch to tease out these threads and interactions between the characters. If the first book featured a masterfully handled plot, this one show her equal mastery of character.
Then there’s the setup for book three. We get the return of a sinister character from A Darker Shade, with a twist, and the character periodically gets a chapter that illustrates what’s going on and gives hints as to his plans. Ultimately, there’s nothing that’s going to surprise you, but the book executes it well and ends on a major major cliffhanger.
All that being said, I loved this book as much as I lovedA Darker Shade, but for very different reasons. And that cliffhanger…how long until the next one?