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

by Sharon Browning

A Gathering of ShadowsA Gathering of Shadows Final
V. E. Schwab
Tor Books
Release Date:  February 23, 2016
ISBN 978-0-7653-7647-3

In the nine books that Victoria Schwab has written thus far (six as YA author Victoria Schwab, three books under the name V. E. Schwab), A Gathering of Shadows – which is the second book in her Darker Shade of Magic series – is her first cliffhanger.  And goodness gracious, it’s a humdinger of a cliffhanger, one that works on virtually every level.

If you are a magical fantasy fan, and you haven’t yet experienced Ms. Schwab’s first two novels – 2013’s superlative Vicious, which turns the notion of “superhero” on its head, or last year’s first book in this current series, A Darker Shade of Magic, then you need to drop what you are doing and seek both out, now.  Believe me, you’ll thank me later.

But back to the matter at hand:  A Gathering of Shadows.

Some background.  In Ms. Schwab’s Darker Shade of Magic series, there is not one, but four Londons (none of which is the London that “we” know).  Red London is vibrant and colorful and brimming with magic.  But there are three other Londons, existing in the same time and place, but on a different plane.  These other Londons are not nearly as blessed as Red London:  White London is cold and sterile with magic used as a tool to gain and hold power; Grey London is drab and forlorn, containing no magic at all.  Then there is Black London – or at least there was, once, but no one speaks of it now save in whispers.

Only one being can travel between the Londons:  an Antari – a human of unsurpassed magical prowess, an anomaly, marked by an eye whose surface is completely colored in black.  Antari are extremely rare, and our hero Kell is one of the two known Antari in all the Londons.

Kell  is attached to the royal family in Arnes, the country that is centered around Red London.  He is young, impetuous yet serious, with a tall, thin frame and auburn hair that belies the magical power stirring his blood.  He and the royal heir, dashing playboy Prince Rhy, are of the same age and have lived their entire lives as brothers.

There is another major player in the Darker Shade of Magic series, though:  Delilah Bard, a girl from Grey London who makes her living as a thief and pickpocket, and she’s good at what she does – very good.  That doesn’t mean she stays out of trouble, but she makes her way and is answerable to no one.  That is until she picks a mark that is far more than he seems:  Kell, on one of his trips carrying messages from the King in Red London to the ruler of Grey London.

WARNING:  Reading further will allude to some gentle spoilers for the first book in the series, A Darker Shade of Magic, as would be expected when reviewing the second book in a series.  I will attempt to keep them at a minimum, but they do, nevertheless, exist.

From their chance meeting in A Darker Shade of Magic, Lila and Kell are thrust into a perilous adventure that transverses all the Londons, including an epic battle with the Dane twins, bloodthirsty rulers of White London who have their sights set on wresting power away from Red London.  Their nefarious plot embroils Prince Rhy and pits Kell against the only other known Antari, Holland, who has been magically bonded to the Dane twins’ fate.  Lila and Kell prevail, but at a very high cost.  In the end, they part company:  Kell, to return to his royal duties and to look after his brother, and Lila to seek her fame and fortune in the world of Red London as a pirate (or at least that is her hope, in that she has never yet even been to sea).

A Gathering of Shadows is actually more Lila’s story than it is Kell’s, in that we follow her out to sea as she finagles her way onto the privateer vessel, the Night Spire, with its charming and enigmatic captain, Alucard Emery.  It is here that Lila hones the suggestion of magic that she carries within, despite coming from a land devoid of magic.  When the Night Spire returns to London for the epic Essen Tasch – the Element Games – an international magic competition that is meant to both entertain and foster ties between neighboring counties, Lila is torn between fear and elation at the prospect of seeing Kell again, as well as hatching a plot to compete in the games, herself.

Kell, meanwhile, chafes against both his royal duties and the even deeper bond that was forged in the previous struggle to save Rhy’s life.  A virtual prisoner of his responsibilities, he jumps at the chance that Rhy dreams up to compete in the Essen Tasch – clandestinely, as his magical skills as an Antari would give him a vastly unfair advantage over the competition and strain the tenuous political ties between Arnes and its powerful neighbors.  His goal in competing is not to win, but to exercise his power in a way that only fighting the best magicians in the land can unleash.

Little does he know that a threat is rising in White London, newly rejuvenated after the end of the Dane twins’ crippling rule.  But this threat comes not from a burgeoning rebirth of White London itself; its catalyst is far darker and more powerful, released from the very depths of Black London – a demonic force that had lain in wait for its chance to rise once again.  And for that, it needs to harness the very instrument of magic.  It needs an Antari.

Once again, Victoria Schwab weaves a tale that is both entertaining with insouciant wit and engaging characters, and terrifying with its power and ruthlessness.  While many of the characters are charismatic and fun to read, none of them are truly noble.  We may cheer Lila and her fierce independence, but she nevertheless possesses a quick temper and holds no grudges – instead she settles scores, and the body count rises around her.  Rhy’s return from death has made him reckless and fatalistic; only knowing that he must someday rule the kingdom – and the effect his actions have on his brother – keeps him from self-destruction.  Alucard Emery, the most engaging new character, is charming, clever and mysterious, but he is still a pirate in all but name, for what is a privateer but a pirate with royal sanctions?  And Kell himself has become sullen and blunted, allowing the responsibilities of both his position and towards Rhy to take away his boyish joy, as well as the thrill that magic used to raise in his very being.  But these developments – they work.  They feel right, without driving the characters in some forced direction for the sake of a contrived story.

And the action is spectacular, thrilling.  The sea voyages, the pageantry around the Essen Tasch and the competition itself, the betrayals, the reveals, the intrigue – they drive the plot forward breathlessly, while in the background a menace lurks, unknown to all save the reader until… well, hence the humdinger of a cliffhanger.

To be honest, I’m glad this one was a cliffhanger.  You know that saying of “it’s the journey, not the destination”?  The journey in this book – this set of books – is so enjoyable, so intriguing, so compelling, that I don’t mind how much of it is still to come.  (And let me key you in on something – you read a while and think you know where the story is going?  Often, you don’t, and kudos to Ms. Schwab to stay true to the flow of the story rather than go the easy route with the “tried and true”.)  It was clear long before the final chapters that there was far more to come than the remaining pages could cover, so there was no sense of “gotcha”.  Knowing that, the anticipation for the next book is high, and healthy.

And it gives you some time to catch up, if you haven’t read the books yet.  But don’t put it off!  This is definitely one journey you want to embark – now AND later.

~ Sharon Browning

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