“I am Delilah Bard, she thought, as the ropes cut her skin. I am a thief and a pirate and a traveler. I have set foots in three different worlds, and lived. I have shed the blood of royals and held magic in my hands. And a ship full of men cannot do what I can. I don’t need any of you.
I am one of a damned kind.”
I will need to restrain myself so this review doesn’t consist solely of me screaming AAAAHHHH LILA OMFG LILA, LILA IS AWESOME. It’s going to be difficult, but I will do my best.
Warning: This review will discuss the outcome of the first book A Darker Shade of Magic. If you haven’t read it and would like to remain unspoiled, feel free to skip this review and go read A Darker Shade of Magic instead.
It’s been four months since Kell the Antari (or blood mage) from Red London and Lila the thief from Gray London killed the power-hungry royals of White London and stopped the dangerous magic of Black London the royals had unleashed. Four months since Lila left Red London to explore the rest of this world. Four months since Kell cast a spell that brought his adopted brother Prince Rhy back to life, binding the two of them together with Kell’s life force. And in the meantime, Kell’s hungry and violent restlessness grows.
In Red London, excitement is growing for the upcoming Element Games, the Essen Tasch, in which the best magicians of the countries of Arnes and far-off Vesk and Faro compete in an extravagant spectacle of a tournament. Meanwhile Lila is coming into her own as a magician, what should be an impossibility as a Gray Londoner—except things are changing. Magic is reawakening in magic-less Gray London. And Black London—that dead, locked-away world—is rising again, the magic searching for another world to inhabit.
Kell and Lila will meet each other once again, but not the way either of them expected. And when they do, all the worlds will break loose.
What can I say about how much I love Lila that I haven’t said before, except “I LOVE LILA SO MUCH SHE’S MY FAVE”? She was easily my favorite part of A Darker Shade of Magic, and in this book she spends 500 more pages stealing my heart like the experienced thief she is. She’s clever and quick, incredibly daring, and sometimes entirely mad. She’ll manipulate powerful magic she barely knows how to use and throw herself head-first into madcap plans she has no choice of pulling off, EXCEPT SHE DOES. Because she’s Delilah Bard, and the day she lets anything determine her fate is the day hell freezes over.
I love that Lila’s ambition is to be a legend, not just because female characters are so rarely afforded or “granted” the space to want such things or have such “selfish” goals, but because she’ll put in danger all she’s earned the past four months at sea with the crew of the Nightspire—ease, familiarity, comradery, the trust of the enigmatic captain Alucard Emery—in favor of the kind of life she wants to lead. Her life comes with consequences, and Lila realizes them, uncomfortably processes the reality, and moves forward. Words cannot describe how much I adore characters who fight to live their lives and accept the consequences of their actions as the price needed to pay. Lila may regret her losses, but those pale in comparison to living the life she wants to lead. And nowhere A Gathering of Shadows does she resemble one of my absolute favorite characters Kara Thrace than in this following exchange with Kell:
“Everyone thinks I have a death wish, you know? But I don’t want to die—dying is easy. No, I want to live, but getting close to death is the only way to feel alive. And once you do, it makes you realize that everything you were doing before wasn’t actually living. It was just making do.
You almost died, Kell. So now you know what it feels like to live. To fear for that life. To fight for it. And once you know, well there’s no going back.”
In my review for A Darker Shade of Magic, I wrote that Lila’s characterization strongly overshadowed Kell’s, the guy who’s ostensibly the protagonist. That starts out true for A Gathering of Shadows as well, but Kell quickly catches up to Lila in interest-factor. He continues to be his endearingly angst-bucket self, but multiplied a hundredfold because we now have chapters from Rhy’s perspective, and both of them are trapped by the enchantment binding Rhy’s life to Kell’s. Now Kell and Rhy are condemned to share each other’s physical and mental pain for as long as they are bound. More seriously, Kell is even more responsible for protecting the prince than before because if he dies, then Rhy dies with him.
The best—and by best, I mean emotionally devastating—part of in Kell and Rhy’s newly volatile relationship is that both of them carry pain and guilt for causing the other pain and guilt. Kell and Rhy each blame themselves for the events in A Darker Shade of Magic that led to Rhy’s death and resuscitation—Kell for his smuggling that brought the magic of Black London to Red London in the first place, Rhy for his insecurity over his lack of magical power leading him to accept the token that enabled the queen of White London to kill him. Yet because of the link, they can’t avoid hurting each other even as they’re trying to outrun their own pain and guilt.
Kell’s characterization in A Gathering of Shadows is so vastly improved because he now has Rhy to serve as his foil: Kell, an Antari, the strongest magician in Arnes, feared for his power, is obligated to serve the royal family of Arnes to the detriment of his own freedom, and is now further bound to ensure the prince isn’t killed by Kell’s own actions. Rhy, the carefree prince with the power of the Arnesian throne behind him, now owes Kell and Kell’s magic for his continued existence, but has also because the source of Kell’s mental anguish. The two of them trap each other, and so Rhy seeks to give Kell—and himself—a chance at freedom.
The plot of A Gathering of Shadows was as compelling as the characters. This is the first time we get glimpses of peoples and countries outside of Arnes and its capital city of Red London. Introduced here are the neighboring nations of Vesk and Faro, each with their own ways of wielding magic. The Element Games and the matches between each country’s respective magicians were exciting to read, as well as surprisingly evocative of the pro-bending matches in Legend of Korra (There’s also comparisons that can be made between Korra and Mako with a certain few contestants, but I’ll say no more.)
This book also gives the first glimpse into the world of Black London. The locked-away world is ruled by a presence both beautiful and insidious, its magical power an overwhelming allure and a deadly trap. At the very end of A Gathering of Shadows, this power makes a play that upends the balance of Red London, and also causes the book to end on an entirely unfair cliffhanger.
I have only two minor complaints. Number one is that while much was made of the animosity on Kell and Rhy’s behalf for Lila’s captain Alucard Emery, the actual execution of such on Emery’s side fell flat for me. Number two is that I wanted more politics. One of my problems with A Darker Shade of Magic was that despite the fascinating premise of the magical Londons, they felt only roughly sketched out in terms of fully-realized alternate worlds. While we’re introduced to Vesk and Faro in this book, these nations and peoples felt similarly rough, with very little shown concerning the relationships and politics maintained between the them and Arnes. There was one tidbit about how the foreign countries consider Kell and the strength of his powers to be the reason for Arnes’ current prosperity, meaning that Kell’s status wavers between being a valuable asset to Arnes and a pawn in a potential political struggle. I wanted more details like this.
I had a lot of fun reading A Gathering of Shadows, and I’ve enjoyed both books in this series a great deal. The stories themselves are a tad too predictable, but they’re also fun, and the characters are wonderful, and I have so many feelings. V.E. Schwab is an skilled, creative writer and a powerful storyteller. If you want fun reads filled with fantastic characters and madcap adventures and creative, clever magic battles, or if you just like stories set in London(s), do yourself a favor and read these books. They’re fun. They make me happy. In the end, that’s all that matters.