A Gathering of Shadows: an excess of squee

Book cover: A Gathering of Shadows - V E Schwab (a woman with thigh boots and two knives silhouetted above a street map against a red background)Kell Maresh and Lila Bard saved the worlds and went their separate ways. Kell has been confined to keep his royal brother safe; Lila has finally gone to sea to find herself (and scare sensible men witless). But the triennial Essen Tasch lures the world’s best sorcerers back to London – and a girl from Grey London has a few tricks up her sleeve she’d like to try… 

My only complaint about A Darker Shade of Magic was that the finale didn’t quite live up to the insane level of excitement that preceded it. A Gathering of Shadows has a similar but different problem: for a book that centres on the Triwizard Tournament Essen Tasch, it’s surprisingly disinterested in the result.

It’s a minor quibble. I was head over heels with joy from the very start of A Gathering of Shadows, which shamelessly pandered to my every whim. No regular visitor to this blog could have missed my delight in pirates; so to find Lila Bard at sea seizing ships and learning magic was always going to make me happy.

Dangerous. Reckless. Foolish. Mad.

One of a kind.

It’s fair to say she’s wide open to accusations of being a Mary Sue, but I really couldn’t care less. We get to spend a lot more time in her intoxicating company in the sequel as she terrifies her crewmates, masters elemental magic, and agrees to wear a dress (YES REALLY). In discovering her glass eye in A Darker Shade of Magic, we’re invited to wonder whether she may be Grey London’s Antari – here, she too has begun to ask the question.

Whether it’s the sheer foolhardy risk or the need to know what she is that pushes her into coshing a competitor over the head to steal his identity (poor bloke, although as I briefly thought she was going to assume Kell’s disguise, it could have been worse I suppose) remains unclear. Once she’s in the lists, her bloody-minded competitive streak is more than enough to keep her going.

Kell, meanwhile, participates under protest. A figure of disrepute after the outbreak of Black Magic in London, he has acquired two mistrustful Guardsmen (one a cinnamon roll who better bloody well survive the series) and a dark reputation. Only Rhy has any inkling of how frustrated he is, constrained by the knowledge that his life is Rhy’s life (quite literally) and the loss of the King’s support. The fleshing out of the brothers’ relationship was deeply satisfying (and yes, I may have shed a tear when Rhy tried to let Kell know he was sorry in spite of being worlds apart).

Brief ventures to Grey London feel like a set-up for the final volume, although Kell’s distress at George III’s demise is heart-felt and touching. George IV is intentionally awful, and his appetite for magic bodes ill given that it becomes clear all too quickly that the power of Black London still poses a very real danger. Just how would Grey London respond to a renewed flow of magic? Badly, I suspect, even without Kell’s dire warnings about balance.

Back in Red London, we get to know Rhy a good deal better. He is considerably more than the playboy prince he initially appears, and I have a great deal of hope that he will one day make a great king (if he gets the chance). For now, it’s far more important to know that Lila’s captain once broke his heart, and is at sea in part because Kell told him he’d kill him if he ever came back. Given he’s also a powerful wizard who can master three elements – as well as a charming flirt – I declare shenanigans.

Honestly, this is a book written for shipping and tumblr feeds and I’m well aware it (deservedly) has both. Alucard Emery is perfect bait for fandom, and I know I’m not the only one to have fallen hard for the glamorous privateer.

I have no qualms about the climax here – yes, the importance of the Essen Tasch fades into background noise (and I do wonder whether it would have made more sense to watch the final round from Rhy’s perspective, as he was more invested in the outcome), but it’s clear early on that it is in fact a distraction. The real action is happening in White London, in sly chapters inserted at the end of each part to keep us fretting. When the new King makes his move – through the ruthlessly devoted, magically-enhanced Ojka (watch out, Lila) – I found myself reading with baited breath.

A Gathering of Shadows has more than balanced my disappointment in Crucible of Gold, which I’ve read in parallel, and cemented the Shades of Magic series as one of my firm favourites (thank heavens the third volume has just been released).

I end on a note of pure joy, knowing I can pick up the sequel immediately to find out how that cliffhanger resolves. As an added bonus, Sony have just picked up the rights to turn A Darker Shade of Magic into a movie.