I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab
Series: A Darker Shade of Magic #2
Published by Tor Books on February 23 2016
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
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The nitty-gritty: A delicious blend of magic and intrigue, deception and romantic tension, a perfectly paced follow-up that will leave you longing for more.
Beware: spoilers await all ye who have not read A Darker Shade of Magic!
It’s been a year since I read A Darker Shade of Magic, but I easily fell right back into Schwab’s magical but dangerous world, where three different Londons exist one on top of the other—Grey, White and Red—and only a few people are able to move among them. Well, I guess you could say there are four Londons, but Black London’s doors were closed forever after the magic there spun out of control, and now Black London is nothing but ruins, or maybe even a myth. A Gathering of Shadows was just as good, if not better, than the first book, which is happy news for fans who fear the “sophomore slump” syndrome that often inflicts fantasy series. Not only does the story keep building—I’m not sure exactly where Schwab is headed, but I can tell she knows, and it feels as if events are careening toward an inexorable finish line—but we get more back story on the characters that we grew to love: Lila, Kell, and Rhy in particular. We also get to meet a new character or two, my very favorite being Alucard Emery. But even though Alucard is new to us, the readers, he’s not new to the other characters, if you know what I mean. In fact, half the fun of this story was keeping track of who knew who and what their relationships were.
When the story begins, Lila has become part of the crew of the Night Spire, under Captain Alucard Emery, a privateer sailing through Arnesian waters and pillaging ships for profit. It’s been four months since the events at the end of book one, when Lila walked away from Kell to go on her own adventure, and now she’s got just what she wanted. She spends her days helping the crew raid ships, and her evenings with Alucard in his cabin, learning the Arnesian language and the beginnings of elemental magic.
But when Alucard announces they’re headed back to London so that he can compete in a magic tournament called the Essen Tasch—the Element Games—Lila makes up her mind to join the competition herself, even though she isn’t on the roster.
Meanwhile in London, the royal castle is preparing for the Essen Tasch. The King is keeping Kell on a tight leash, after the horrifying events at the end of A Darker Shade of Magic, and Prince Rhy is busy creating the fantastical stages where thirty-six magicians will soon compete against each other. But a world away in White London, a new King has nefarious plans to bring ruin to the other Londons, in a way that no one will see coming. As the competition plays out on stage, this new threat is slowly gaining power off stage, biding its time for the right moment.
That’s a very simplified summary of the story, which is just as satisfyingly complex as Schwab’s other books. Once again, she shows her writing chops without actually showing them. The story is flawlessly constructed and paced, with never a dull moment, even when nothing is actually happening. It isn’t until about the midway point, when the Night Spire docks in Red London and Lila sets foot on land again, that the real story begins. The first half is a build-up to what’s coming, and yet I never lost interest for a moment. We get the wonderful experience of spending time on the pirate—er, privateer—ship with Lila and Alucard, which was all kinds of great fun! It’s during these scenes that we meet Alucard Emery, magician extraordinaire and ship’s captain. He and Lila are wary of each other at first, but they grow to be great companions, each keeping their personal secrets close to the vest, while the other does everything he can to pry those secrets free.
The story switches between the characters on the Night Spire and the goings-on in Red London, where preparations for the Element Games are consuming everyone’s thoughts. Kell and his brother Rhy have a new relationship, after Kell brought Rhy back from the dead in the last book, by giving him a piece of his own soul. Now the brothers can feel each other’s pain, a side effect of the magic that Kell performed, and their relationship is delightfully complicated by this fact. Although the King is keeping a close watch on Kell, he still manages to slip away at times and travel to the other Londons, and even though that travelling isn’t as big a part of the story this time, I relished every journey, as Kell uses blood magic to open and close the doors between the worlds.
Once the games start, there are plenty of action-packed scenes where the competitors duel against each other. The Element Games reminded me a little of the Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, although these games didn’t have the same element of danger. But for me, the best parts of this book revolve around the relationships between Kell, Alucard, Lila and Rhy. Kell and Lila are still (reluctantly) pining for one another, Kell hates Alucard because of a past grievance, Lila and Alucard have a rather complex relationship as well, and it only confuses things more when Kell and Lila decide to disguise themselves in order to compete in the Essen Tasch. Half the fun of reading this book was trying to keep all the relationships straight, and I honestly loved every minute of the confusion!
Even though Kell and Lila are separated for most of the story, they seem to be constantly thinking of each other, which added a wonderful longing between them that made my heart beat faster. And although I’m “Kell and Lila” all the way, I have to say I loved the very confusing relationship between Lila and Alucard just as much. This might be the first story I’ve read with interesting sexual tension among three characters, that wasn’t actually a love triangle!
And don’t worry—despite all the tournament excitement and the sizzling romantic tension, darkness isn’t very far away. (The title of this book is A Gathering of Shadows, after all.) A character from the last book makes an appearance, and his actions promise chaos and plenty of bad stuff ahead for the gang.
By the end of the story, Schwab has set things up nicely for the conclusion to the series, but it certainly didn’t make it any easier for me to turn the last page. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a cliff hanger ending, although we are certainly left gnashing our teeth for the next book. Some things are resolved, and others aren’t, and I was fine with that.
There were so many magical touches in A Gathering of Shadows that I haven’t even mentioned, but it’s just as well, because now you can discover them for yourself. Highly recommended!
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. A slightly different version of this review first appeared on The Speculative Herald.