A Conjuring of Light: the consequence of delay

Book cover: A Conjuring of Light - V E Schwab (a silhouette of a man in a cloak)A Conjuring of Light is the finale of the Shades of Magic trilogy, picking up right where A Gathering of Shadows left off: Red London under threat, Kell captured, Rhy dying, Lila desperate and ready to find out whether she is what we’ve all come to suspect she may be. So, err, spoilers, right? Right.

It’s once again taken me far too long to get around to writing this review, because reasons (none of them the book’s fault). This means my impressions have had time to settle – and unfortunately, that means my criticisms have ended up in sharper relief than the excited flailing of being freshly-read. Don’t get me wrong – I really enjoyed this read and highly recommend it – but it wasn’t all I hoped for. Ah, expectations.

Kicking off at a rate of knots that puts the climax of many other series to shame, Schwab packs so much into the first Part of the book that it’s practically a novel in its own right. It’s like a really good warm-up act or a Bond pre-credits sequence: fast, violent, breathtaking, high stakes – but for me, it doesn’t belong here. It feels like the orphaned final act of A Gathering of Shadows, and leaves me wondering why that book finished on a cliffhanger (I fully admit bias: I abhor cliffhangers. If the first thing you do in the next episode is resolve it and escalate, I simply don’t see the point. If the story is good enough – and it is – I was always coming back for more).

It also wasted the wonderful Ojka. Like Holland, she’s a great villain – nuanced, noble in her own way – and clearly a mirror for Lila. She may have done worse things than Lila, but arguably she’s done them for better reasons. There is so much potential here it hurts. She has an arc in A Gathering of Shadows, learning to master magical powers much as Lila must and finding a cause to fight for beyond her own survival. It’s all thrown away by making her a disposable pawn in the opening act of A Conjuring of Light. I was dying to see the showdown between Ojka and Lila – I wasn’t expecting it to happen almost immediately, and for that to be the end of her.

Don’t get me wrong, I thought Part I was brilliant; I just think we should have had it sooner.

With the cast back in London and the stage set for apocalypse, Schwab can get everything out to play with: Rhy’s relationship with Alucard; Kell’s relationship with his royal foster parents; Lila’s magical ambitions; Holland’s motivations; and the immense menace of Osaron, the spirit of Black magic.

Because if you thought it was scary in A Darker Shade of Magic, you haven’t seen anything yet. Red London falls like a deck of cards, its population becoming little better than puppets (although think the madness of a whipped-up mob, not mindless zombies; it’s terrifying because it can also be personal, as Alucard finds out). The palace is quickly besieged, trapping the most privileged inside it as the Antari and the priests raise the defences (and thankfully, our heroes notice that the king has mercilessly shut out his people ‘for the greater good’, leading to some interesting personal development for Rhy).

The situation looks hopeless. The external menace is matched by the sniff of internal politics; what can possibly go wrong when ambitious foreign dignitaries and antagonistic mages are trapped together under pressure? Add in haunting scenes of our characters sneaking through the streets and it’s spooky drama that still makes time to expose the fault lines in our protagonists’ personalities.

Of course, the problem with setting up hopeless odds it that you have to think up a way around them. Schwab settles on a sort of magical dustbuster MacGuffin – conveniently traded away by Alucard many years ago, requiring a fresh quest to retrieve it before it can be put to use.

I loved so many aspects of this book. The plethora of plots is thoroughly entertaining and the characters are engaging even when they’re not entirely admirable. I adore Lila precisely because she’s a terrible person: self-centred, arrogant, and largely unaware of her own limitations. She should be unbearable, but thankfully she has a streak of empathy she can’t always wrestle into submission.

That said, the narrative could be more critical of its heroine – and for all her risks and cockiness, she faces very few consequences (because I don’t consider having to come to terms with having FEELINGS for other people to be a bad thing). In fact, consequences were where I had the most trouble with A Conjuring of Light.

You see, I’m a cynic. When the world is at stake, I expect victory to be hard-won. I want to be kept guessing about who will live, who will die, who will tell the story. When Book 3 of a trilogy goes out of its way to focus on characters who have previously been peripheral, I start to see targets being painted on backs. I don’t want to. I want to genuinely fear for the protagonists we’ve travelled with to date and to worry about the decisions they may have to make.

I didn’t. There was never any doubt in my mind that they’d all make the final battle. I even had an elaborate idea of just how badly south that might go (it didn’t; although my Muskedragon co-readers may not forgive me for scaring them with the idea of Osarhy), but the incidental encounters along the way repeatedly reconfirmed that the core cast were untouchable.

So to me, the supporting cast were set up to look entirely expendable, although even I was surprised by just how many of them were killed along the way (SPOILERS (mouse over to read) maybe this is my real beef – YOU CAN’T KILL CINNAMON ROLLS DAMMIT). I became quite tetchy about the amount of page time spent trying to make me care for or at least empathise with the King and Queen. I probably wasn’t meant to cheer at their inevitable sacrifice, but I’m a bad person.

Perhaps this is my other real problem: because there’s so much padding, nuance is often swept aside in service to moving the plot along. A Conjuring of Light implies in broad brushstrokes rather better than it explores in detail. When Kell crumples Maris’s note as he boards his ship home, it should be an enormous, powerful personal moment. Instead, it’s almost lost in the noise, a quick beat of pathos rather than a swelling crescendo of embracing his identity.

In spite of losing almost everything he loves, Luc rapidly… moves on. Having just watched an episode of Doctor Who focusing on exactly this ability, all I can say is that Luc hasn’t had two thousand years of practice. I get that he wears a public mask – but the narrative rarely slips past it, which does him a disservice. Rhy benefits most from what few quiet moments we get: his development from playboy Prince to protector of the people, risking himself to save as many as he can from Osaron’s grasp.

In the end, A Conjuring of Light feels like a big, shiny blockbuster of a book, and like big, shiny blockbuster movies it leaves me buzzing but not entirely satisfied emotionally. It was fun, and I’ll certainly read the series again – and recommend it highly – but it’s fair to say it’s my least favourite of the three books.

…which isn’t to say it isn’t still a damn good read. There’s nothing wrong with popcorn from time to time. I giggled and gasped my way through it with delight. I was just hoping for a bit more substance to go with the style.