Return to London: A Review of A Gathering of Shadows

A Gathering of Shadows (2016)
Written By: V.E. Schwab
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 512 (Trade Paperback)
Series: Shades of Magic (Book 2)
Publisher: Tor Books

Why I Chose It: I really liked the first one, which didn’t end on a cliffhanger. Strangely enough, I find that more of a reason to read a sequel than when a book just cuts off with the expectation that you’ll leap for the next. And this is also the book I kept passing in the library thinking, “I love that cover.”

The Premise:

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-and so to keep magic’s balance, another London must fall…in V.E. Schwab’s A Gathering of Shadows.

Very mild spoilers ahead.


Discussion: Like the first book, this one started slow. Or maybe it would be better to say it has a slow build because I never found myself bored, only waiting. The main difference here being that A Darker Shade of Magic had a very distinct point of no return. A moment (or in this case an object) that launched the story and thrust the main characters together. A Gathering of Shadows didn’t have a moment so much as it had a series of subtle decisions that led to a growing sense of inevitability. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it did give the book a less epic and insistent feel.

It lacked urgency — there’s a good word — although there was a decent underlying tension built on dissatisfaction and secrets that kept us moving through the whole thing. The main story line revolved around a magical competition which isn’t the most original fantasy trope, but it’s usually pretty fun and this one had Lila. And of course, because Lila was involved, there were masks. Who doesn’t love a good masquerade?

I loved that Kell is still being shaped by the conflict of the first book. He is having to deal with the consequences of his actions and the status quo isn’t comfortable. I kind of like the disparity. The bad guy was defeated, everyone got what they wanted, but it did not necessarily leave them better off. The characters have left their marks on each other. Holland’s dying taunt that Kell has no strength because he has never needed to be strong haunts him. He hears Lila’s voice mocking every choice he makes even as Lila hears Kell urging her to caution.

Let’s be fair, as much as I liked Kell and his sometimes high-handed righteousness, I’m not sure his pristine façade would have held up for another book. Sure he had his whole smuggling side business going on, but it felt a little like a rich kid shoplifting just to see if he can get away with it. He was drawn to the illicit but not really enough to be changed by it. Kell’s new struggle with darkness and the unfair boundaries placed on him was so much more compelling. His reward for saving the day was restriction and distrust which finally bring out a truly honest response from him. I loved when he asked his mentor if he thought Kell was selfish, and his mentor replied “No, I think you’re human.” I felt like I was watching as Kell left behind the tame boy he’d been and experimented with the badass man he could be, while trying not to lose himself in the process.

Along the same lines, I loved the give and take between Kell and Lila and how their relationship grew, especially considering they were an ocean apart for half the book. They really are a surprisingly perfect match for each other. The way Lila takes the upper hand until Kell is forced to meet her strength with his strength? That was worth the four hundred page lead up. Given how well this was done, I really wanted something as meaningful for Kell’s brother, Rhy, and Lila’s captain, Alucard. There were tons of little hints of history and a love gone wrong, but when the payoff finally came, it ended up feeling halfhearted and unfinished. All the lovely tension between Kell and Alucard fell flat when it was finally explained. Maybe we’re still missing pieces and this love/hate triangle will have the spotlight in the third book, but I wanted more now. Probably because I love Rhy’s character and would love to see more of him on the page.

This wasn’t the only thing that ended up being a little disappointing. Besides a plot that just barely kept the characters moving forward, the magic system seemed to take a step back in this one too. The first book was about London in all its parallel forms. The story traveled from one to another. But this book concentrated on the world of Red London, and we got to see more of the cultures and the magic that formed Kell’s home. But I think by attempting to branch out and explore other aspects of the Red London world, Schwab lost a little of what made A Darker Shade of Magic so unique and special. Instead of following Kell’s one-of-a-kind ability to travel between worlds, he is restricted to working a more mundane kind of magic with the elements. It felt a little too familiar. The only time it was exciting was when Lila was experimenting and that’s because she wasn’t from a world with magic, so it really was experimentation.

In Conclusion: This was one of those books that seemed to exist solely to set up the third book, with a plot focused on getting certain characters where they needed to be (physically and emotionally) and a cliffhanger ending you could see a mile away. But in the end, I think I can forgive it that dubious distinction because I ended up loving the journey as much as the destination. When I think back on what actually happened in this book, it wasn’t that much. A magical competition and…that’s about it. But then I realize that’s not really what the book was about. Lila’s stubborn growth and Kell’s inexorable breaking are what keep you turning the pages. And yeah, I think ending a book with one character running to save another is a mean trick, but I did immediately rush to the library for the third installment. So who’s laughing now?

2 Comments

  • Shara White October 3, 2017 at 7:33 pm

    I look forward to hearing if the final book makes or breaks this trilogy for you!

    Reply
  • Lane Robins October 5, 2017 at 9:40 pm

    Count me in as another who’ll be interested to see if the third book pulls the whole series together.

    Reply

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