A Gathering of Shadows by V. E. Schwab
Publisher: Titan Books
Publication date: 23 February 2016
This is review is spoiler-free for A Gathering of Shadows, however there may be spoilers for the previous book, A Darker Shade of Magic. If you haven’t read that one, I suggest giving this review a miss.
After a mediocre, but promising start to the series with A Darker Shade of Magic), I was nervous about being disappointed by the second book in this wildly popular series. For me, A Darker Shade of Magic was problematic in a number of areas, but particularly the characters. Their lack of development and personality, coupled intense disappointment over Delilah Bard’s character, I felt really let down by this incredibly popular series. If you’re curious, you can read my review of the first book here.
What I wanted from A Gathering of Shadows was more development with the characters, the world(s) around them, and a better understanding of the interesting magic system she had established. Fortunately, A Gathering of Shadows delivered.
Four months have passed since the shadow stone fell into Kell’s possession. Four months since his path crossed with Delilah Bard. Four months since Rhy was wounded and the Dane twins fell, and the stone was cast with Holland’s dying body through the rift, and into Black London.
In many ways, things have almost returned to normal, though Rhy is more sober, and Kell is now plagued by his guilt. Restless, and having given up smuggling, Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila, who disappeared from the docks like she always meant to do. As Red London finalizes preparations for the Element Games—an extravagant international competition of magic, meant to entertain and keep healthy the ties between neighboring countries—a certain pirate ship draws closer, carrying old friends back into port.
But while Red London is caught up in the pageantry and thrills of the Games, another London is coming back to life, and those who were thought to be forever gone have returned. After all, a shadow that was gone in the night reappears in the morning, and so it seems Black London has risen again—meaning that another London must fall.*
Schwab expands on her fantastical version of London and the surrounding world of Arnes as the Essen Tasch begins. The games are the centre of the events in A Gathering of Shadows, creating plot points, expanding on the magic system, allowing characters to strengthen and grow, and providing a distraction from who and what is stirring in a long dead London. As Lila, Alucard, Kell, and other descend upon London for the element games, we learn the intricacies and rules of the all-important magic system and how our heroes, particularly Lila, use and interact with magic. We learn more about Arnes’s neighbors and the shaky alliance that exists between the three of them. This was another one of the elements I felt was missing from A Darker Shade of Magic. I like my fantasy worlds to have loads of detail, which just wasn’t there in the first book. While we aren’t quite there yet, the Essen Tasch and Lila’s seafaring adventures added so much cultural and historical background that really enriched the book.
Something interesting to note about the plot is that there isn’t really a typical villain that terrorises the city like in A Darker Shade of Magic. There is, however, setup for later events/the third book peppered throughout the novel, and I really liked the way Schwab handled this. By writing the book this way, she has more pages to dedicate to developing the characters and setting up the conflict in A Conjuring of Light. The tension pervades the book because while everyone is concentrating on the Essen Tasch, we know that danger is coming.
So my biggest issue with A Darker Shade of Magic was that the characters felt so one dimensional. Kell was broody and quite frankly a little boring for a guy who can perform blood magic and literally travel between worlds. Lila was a walking trope and fell into so many of the trappings of the stubborn-to-the-point-of-idiocy female character.
In A Gathering of Shadows, Kell is working through his feelings of immense guilt after the events of the first book. He feels that his actions led to the deaths of a number of his city’s citizens (true), and is wary of the bloodbath that will ensue in White London now that the palace is up for grabs. Holland’s words weigh heavily on his mind as he trains to the point of exhaustion. The king and queen are now much more distant than they have been in the past and the city’s residents look upon him with suspicion and awe.
Due to all of these added elements, Kell becomes much more of a person in A Gathering of Shadows. His place in the palace of Red London, as a family and as royalty, and amongst the citizens becomes much more defined. His relationship with Rhy, which we already knew was strong, is elaborated on. He allows himself to let go a little bit while disguised as a competing magician in the Essen Tasch. We get a much clearer picture of who Kell really is. He becomes a much more interesting character as he competes in the games and deals with the consequences of his actions in the first book. He is no longer a flat, one dimensional character — he is someone I can understand, sympathise with, and root for.
As I’m sure we all remember, Lila is the person that I’m most critical of. I felt she was incredibly weak in the first book — she was a carbon copy of the same problematic heroine I’ve seen so many times before and am getting a little sick of. While she is still incredibly problematic for me, I feel that Schwab made a big effort to make Lila a more well-rounded character. Lila feels more like herself in this book, if that makes sense. Rather than struggling to fit into into the mould of the typical Strong Female Character, Lila becomes more unique and more interesting. It’s almost as though Lila feels more comfortable in her own skin, which makes sense as she transitions from a citizen of Grey London to one of Red London. In A Gathering of Shadows, she has more going for her than a knife collection and a bad attitude. The opening sequence of the book really struck me — it was just fantastic. This is the Lila I wanted to see. This is the Lila that suits her background as a thief in Grey London. This is the Lila I believe in. She uses her skills and survival instincts to absolute perfection. I felt a lot more respect for Lila in this book.
My only (new) criticism is how easily she masters magic — to the point of being so incredibly powerful that she can hold her own against magicians who have been training and living with magic their whole lives. It reminded me a lot of Rey in The Force Awakens and the rightful criticism surrounding her immediate use of the Force (spoilers?).
Now that’s out of the way, let’s get to my favorite characters. We are introduced to Alucard Emery and are more or less introduced to Rhy, who didn’t get much screen time in the first book.
Alucard is the dashing pirate — ahem, privateer — that Lila sets sail with in the beginning of the book. He is a powerful magic user and the sassy captain that I never knew I needed. He’s the perfect character to balance out Lila’s manic decisions and actions, and he brings the joy and lightheartedness lacking in Kell. He brings so much balance to the story, and I found his scenes among the most enjoyable and entertaining. He is truly wonderful.
Now we have Rhy Maresh, the crown prince of Arnes and Kell’s adopted brother. We don’t learn much about Rhy in the first book; all we know is that he’s a pleasure chaser, a bit of a layabout, he loves his brother deeply, and he almost completely lacks magical abilities. I had assumptions about Rhy going into A Gathering of Shadows, and he blew my expectations out of the water. Rhy becomes one of the most complex, intriguing characters in this book. He loves his people and worries that he will be an ineffective ruler because of his lack of magic. I love Rhy so much. He is clever, devoted to his family and his people, and he’s just full of surprises.
Overall, I enjoyed A Gathering of Shadows much more than A Darker Shade of Magic. It still has its issues, which I wont go into here because of spoilers but message me if you want a spoilery conversation, but it manages to dramatically improve upon the promising world Schwab creates in the first novel. The characters and world building are much stronger and the book is just much more compelling.
Have you read A Gathering of Shadows? What did you think? Let me know!
*Copy courtesy of Goodreads