Harry Potter meets A Knight’s Tale meets Pirates of the Caribbean in this swashbuckling second instalment of the Shades of Magic trilogy.
In fact, its quite unfair to describe this book in terms of pop culture references because it is so much more than the sum of all its parts, but I do it only to emphasise how truly magnificent this book is.
As with all good things it starts as a slow burn, with the author setting the stage and taking the time to reintroduce us to our favourite characters several months after the events of book one. The first quarter of the book was intent on showing how their brush with dark magic impacted Lila, Kell and Prince Rhy. At first glance, they seem to have weathered the storm well but appearances can be deceiving.
Rhy and Kell are struggling with the implications of the spell that keeps Rhy’s life tethered to Kell’s, and how this changes the dynamics of their relationship. Rhy in particular is tortured with guilt at what his actions have brought and a sense of being unworthy of the second chance at life he’s been given.
Kell meanwhile is haunted by dreams of Red London burning, by a growing recklessness and by an increasing need to use his powers. He also faces the fallout of his past activities as the kingdom continues to regard him with suspicion, and the king and queen increasingly treat him like a prisoner under guard rather than a beloved adopted son. Most of all, he struggles with the responsibility of knowing he holds his brother’s life in his hands and that any pain inflicted on him will also be inflicted on Rhy.
As for our favourite Grey London thief, to no one’s surprise, she’s nimbly landed on her feet and finds herself being part of the crew of the Night Spire, a privateer (ahem, pirate) vessel under the leadership of the enigmatic, mysterious and dashing Captain Alucard Emery. She spent the last 3 months on an adventure, establishing a reputation on the high seas as the Sparow, a thief in the night who will rob you blind and you’ll never even see him (or her, in this case) coming.
Woven through all of this is the stunning background of the Essen Tasch or The Elemental Games, where the strongest magicians from the neigbouring empires of Faro and Vesk compete against the pride of the Arnesian empire for the pride of being champion. All of this is set in elaborate arenas built at the heart of Red London, the capital of Arnes.
The world building is stunning. The way the author describes the setting and the scenes just begs for a cinematic adaptation. Reading the book one can almost feel the buildup to the climactic and pivotal moments of the narrative, one can almost taste the anticipation in the air and touch the pulse beat of the excitement as we wait with bated breath for the next twist, for the bend in the road, for the wrench that throws off even the best laid plans.
The thing that is most impressive is that even with so many things going on, VE Schwab never loses sight of the fact that the real strength of this book is the relationship between her central characters. As Master Tieren (the blessed priest) said, magic is not the unknown in the equation because at its core it is and always will be pure. Its the human hands that wield the magic that causes it to appear in different forms. Similarly, in this book its the characters rather than the events that shape the story.
Rhy becomes more of a central figure in this book and we learn a little bit more of his backstory, as well as gaining insight into his hopes, thoughts and fears. I love reading about strong relationships, especially between brothers, so I particularly loved how this book highlighted the bond between Rhy and Kell; its a rope that is damaged and frayed by uncertainty at the moment but its the kind that will hold.
I think Kell for me never quite settles into his role as the main protagonist of this book. Sure, he enters the tournament by stealth and has the chance to flex a bit of muscle in this installment but he still feels like a secondary character. But I don’t think that’s a testament to weak character development; rather its a by-product of the fact that VE Schwab has created such a strong character in the delightful Lila Bard that everyone else just pales in comparison.
I love Lila. Relentless, uncompromising, fearless to the point of having a death wish, she is the real star of this show. Whether dressed in a demon mask, a suit of armor or disarming Kell in that awesome first meeting by donning an actual dress, she burns through the pages and just comes alive in every scene she’s in. I love that she’s an atypical heroine, and she’s a breath of fresh air in this day and age when the fantasy genre is full of so many vapid female characters.
Reading this book will give you an appreciation for the author’s broad imagination. There is something for everyone, even a Cinderella moment for Disney fanatics like me. Overall, its an exquisite blend of intrigue, adventure, magic and romance that will leave readers breathless, that is, breathless from running to the nearest bookstore to read the next book because its just that darn good. A Gathering of Shadows is a delicious romp across this world that VE Schwab has built, and you will be glad you came along for the ride.
Rating: 5 stars