Series Review: Shades of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Series Review: Shades of Magic by V.E. SchwabA Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
Series: Shades of Magic #1
Published by Tor Books on February 24, 2015
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 400
Format: Hardcover
Source: Gifted
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four-stars

Kell is one of the last travelers--magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes connected by one magical city.

There's Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, and with one mad King--George III. Red London, where life and magic are revered--and where Kell was raised alongside Rhy Maresh, the roguish heir to a flourishing empire. White London--a place where people fight to control magic and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London. But no one speaks of that now.

Officially, Kell is the Red traveler, ambassador of the Maresh empire, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they'll never see. It's a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.

Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they'll first need to stay alive.

The hype for Schwab’s Shades of Magic series (or really anything she writes that isn’t middle grade) is persistent and unavoidable. I’ve put off reading her most beloved books, this series and Vicious, because I feared once again being the rogue, discordant, judgmental sheep of the book blogging community, baaing a grumpy tune. Obviously (you can see my rating after all), I’m not a black sheep, though I do admit that I would probably have been a bit more into A Darker Shade of Magic were the hype not so loud.

The world building of A Darker Shade of Magic stands out and is, I would say, the strongest element of the book. The four Londons, a common element between four very different parallel universes, each with varying degrees of magic and a different color, are captivating. Kell, one of the last two Antari (magicians with the ability to move between these universes), gives the reader a window into these different landscapes, and it’s beautifully cinematic and visual.

This series would make a truly phenomenal anime; seriously, someone needs to get the rights to this and do it up in grand fashion (yes, I know someone probably has the rights but like maybe give them to Studio Ghibli okay?). I could help picturing Kell as Howl. He lacks Howl’s suave and flirty nature (Rhy has all of that), but he very much has Howl’s moodiness and magical skills. His coat of many coats like the door of Howl’s moving castle.

The plot runs a pretty common fantasy line. Essentially, the plot ends up being that of The Lord of the Rings, with Kell needing to destroy an evil and dangerous artifact that compels and tempts the user to their doom. It’s not a bad thing, and it doesn’t feel entirely derivative, especially as the series is clearly moving elsewhere in the next installment, but the similarities did make me laugh.

One of the weaknesses is the pacing. While I consistently enjoyed and was impressed by A Darker Shade of Magic, I read it very slowly, until I binged the last hundred or so pages. The POVs shift constantly, so there wasn’t much of a narrative flow. I could particularly have done without the time in the villains’ heads, because they’re all lacking dimensions (compare to the villain POVs in The Raven Cycle, for example).

In general, the characters were another weakness. You spend time with a lot of characters who prove not to matter much, and all that time isn’t spent developing the ones who do. Kell’s nice, and I like him, but I don’t CARE about him. Holland and Rhy have potential, but I scarcely know them at this point. The exception is Lila, who is by the far the most vibrant of the cast (and basically the only girl—minus the two queens—in the whole book).

Based on what I’ve read of Schwab, romance so far doesn’t see to be her strongpoint as a writer. That said, I do have ships, but I’m not sure that they’re going to come to fruition. I do NOT ship Kell and Lila. For all that A Darker Shade of Magic seems to be setting them up, I feel no romantic passion between them; there’s much more UST with his adopted brother, Rhy, than with Lila imo. Actually, my ship at this point is basically that all of the boys in the cast should kiss each other. A lot. It’s encouraging that Rhy is canon bisexual, but I’m trying not to get my hopes too far up, especially given the fact that Kell and Lila seems to be trying so hard to be a thing.

I did it. I launched into dark and possibly unsafe waters, and they proved to be lovely and enchanting. Looking forward to more Lila and whatever adventures are to come!

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

 

Series Review: Shades of Magic by V.E. SchwabA Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab
Series: Shades of Magic #2
Published by Tor Books on February 23, 2016
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 512
Format: eBook
Source: Library
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four-stars

It has been four months since a mysterious obsidian stone fell into Kell's possession. Four months since his path crossed with Delilah Bard. Four months since Prince Rhy was wounded, and since the nefarious Dane twins of White London fell, and four months since the stone was cast with Holland's dying body through the rift--back into Black London.

Now, restless after having given up his smuggling habit, Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila, who disappeared from the docks as 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.

And while Red London is caught up in the pageantry and thrills of the Games, another London is coming back to life. After all, a shadow that was gone in the night will reappear in the morning. But the balance of magic is ever perilous, and for one city to flourish, another London must fall.

Structurally, A Gathering of Shadows works much better and, as one might expect, I flew through this book. I’m still not quite obsessed, but I enjoyed the hell out of this one.

The narration doesn’t jump  around as much as it did in A Darker Shade of Magic, often allowing the reader to stay in one head for several chapters in a row. This moves the story a long much more smoothly and quickly. There’s also way less time spent in the villain’s head, though those few sections with Holland and his lackey were by far my least favorite part of this book, as he still lacks development and serves purely as dramatic irony.

The book opens with Lila, which is a good move re: my investment, because Lila was and still is my favorite. (On a side note, there still aren’t that many female characters of actual note, but there are a bunch of strong women supporting characters in this one which is exciting.) Schwab also introduces Alucard, who (sorry Rhy and Kell) immediately became my second favorite character in the series. He’s bantery and flirty and schemey and piratey (sorry privateery). I love his friendship with Lila so much. They’re such adorable nerds who are perfect friends because neither of them has boundaries and they’re both so schemey that they just forgive each other when they do creepy things.

One weird thing I actually love about this series is that the characters are all continually doing stupid things. I know, I said it was weird. Doing stupid things is generally the worst thing for a fictional character to do, because the reader sits there like GAH IDIOT NO DO NOT DO THE THING OH YOU DID THE THING GODDAMMIT. In this case, though, they all know they’re making unhealthy choices and they consciously, self-awarely proceed while trying to do the dangerous thing as safely as possible.

If the plot of A Darker Shade of Magic was LOTRA Gathering of Shadows is Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, only this tri-wizard tournament admits 12 magicians per nation, and the fighting is a bit more like the battles in season 1 of Legend of Korra. Though the tournament plot doesn’t really advance the larger series plot (that’s basically entirely those snippets with Holland), I didn’t really mind because it’s a fun as hell distraction. I’m not so sure about the representation for the other cultures, which never get viewed as anything more than OTHER, but it’s also not really about that so idk.

I still don’t ship Lila and Kell. I’m pretty okay with every other possible arrangement of lips against lips though. And I could be okay with Lila and Kell in some sort of OT3 situation. I’m total trash for Rhy and Alucard, though that ship set up and the scene where they first meet again is directly out of a yaoi romance and feels perhaps a bit fetishy but whatever cute boys kissing each other = I am here for it.

One more book to go, and that’s got basically all of the series’ plot to go, since so far it’s basically just that set up with Holland and black magic. I’m hoping for the conclusion to blow me away and finally smack me in the feels.

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

 

Series Review: Shades of Magic by V.E. SchwabA Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab
Series: Shades of Magic #3
Published by Tor Books on February 21, 2017
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 624
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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three-half-stars

Witness the fate of beloved heroes - and enemies.

THE BALANCE OF POWER HAS FINALLY TIPPED...
The precarious equilibrium among four Londons has reached its breaking point. Once brimming with the red vivacity of magic, darkness casts a shadow over the Maresh Empire, leaving a space for another London to rise.

WHO WILL CRUMBLE?
Kell - once assumed to be the last surviving Antari - begins to waver under the pressure of competing loyalties. And in the wake of tragedy, can Arnes survive?

WHO WILL RISE?
Lila Bard, once a commonplace - but never common - thief, has survived and flourished through a series of magical trials. But now she must learn to control the magic, before it bleeds her dry. Meanwhile, the disgraced Captain Alucard Emery of the Night Spire collects his crew, attempting a race against time to acquire the impossible.

WHO WILL TAKE CONTROL?
And an ancient enemy returns to claim a crown while a fallen hero tries to save a world in decay.

Well, I can officially call A Gathering of Shadows as my favorite in the series. A Conjuring of Light goes back to some writing quirks from book one I don’t care for, and tbh I think the stakes were actually too high. It’s a satisfying conclusion, but it could have been much stronger narratively.

Since I’ve said every book was like another book, let’s continue my fun comparison game, shall we? WE SHALL, BECAUSE I MAKE THE CHOICES MWAHAHA. What I was most reminded of while reading A Conjuring of Light was Ghostbusters 2, aka the one where they fight the pink goo. Only this time it’s spreading black magic, and it can take over people like in the first Ghostbusters movie. View Spoiler » Yes, this comparison is silly, but I’m not completely wrong. There’s also a hearty dash of Pirates of the Caribbean in there. GHOSTBUSTERS OF THE CARIBBEAN.

Alright, now that you’re laughing at my absurdity (or judging me whatevs), let’s get down and dirty and talk details.

As with A Darker Shade of Magic, my main issue with this book was that there were WAY too many POVs. So many POVs happen once or twice to show the reader one specific thing that either didn’t need to be shown or that could have been shown in a different way. As an example, there’s a random little girl in White London who had two chapters in her POV; she herself isn’t plot relevant AT ALL and is just there to witness Ojka’s body. It’s a pretty basic rule not to introduce a POV character who does nothing whatsoever in the actual plot, and Schwab does this over and over. There’s also Ned in Grey London, who’s dealing with a slight incursion by Osaron that is honestly totally pointless other than to make the high stakes higher.

With all these POVs, Schwab tries really hard to make me care about ALL the characters. Because so much time is spent with the secondary cast, I don’t even feel like I know the main characters that well; I like them, but I’m not truly invested in them. Instead of helping me learn to love Lila, Kell, Rhy, and Alucard more, Schwab tries to make me care about Rhy’s parents, Holland, and a host of others. It doesn’t work. Like, what teen is here for Rhy’s parents weird love and a chapter long love-is-an-arrow metaphor?

And I have to talk more about Holland. For some reason, in the final book, Holland’s POV includes flashbacks, denoted with bold type. Schwab is trying so hard to make me have feelings about Holland, and I just do not. It’s also just done in such a clunky and obvious manner. Again, they don’t really add anything to the book. This information would have felt more real and meaningful, perhaps, if Holland had bonded with one of the other characters and related it in a conversation, rather than having it infodumped in blocks on the reader’s head.

My feelings on the ships are unchanged. I mean, I guess I don’t entirely unship Lila and Kell (do what you want, kids), but they have less passion with each other than they do with basically any other character you could point them at. I love them as friends, but I’m confused by them as a couple; they feel like puppets being forced to kiss each other. Rhy and Alucard are slightly better, but there’s a lot about them that feels like fan service, which isn’t something I’ve felt about m/m outside of anime/manga. For both relationships, there’s so little development of their romantic feelings on the page. And like Alucard had plenty of time in book two to explain to Rhy why he left (hi, needless melodrama!).

The stakes in this book are REALLY high. Normally, this would be a good thing, but here they’re actually so high that I couldn’t be that concerned. That sounds weird, but obviously Osaron was going to be defeated by the end, and the good guys aren’t going to die, but also it looks impossible so there will be some weird loophole to make this possible. From the start, I knew who would die (my predictions were totally right). Plus, this book takes itself SO DAMN SERIOUSLY.

The melodrama is massively high in this one; Schwab utilizes a lot of the same writing tricks as SJM, including metaphors that actually don’t mean anything if you pay too much attention. Schwab’s writing is beautiful, but adding in more of the humor I know she’s capable of would have made this book much more dynamic. A consistently intense and dramatic plot line is still a flat line, and that’s not good. It was so much that by the end when characters started dying, I was actually just cackling madly when it happened. Partly it’s because I’m a dark monster, but it’s also because of the dramatic writing, the lack of investment due to lack of focus, and the predictability of the plot. Also, to be fair to me, there were an endless succession of death fake outs, and the mechanics of several of the deaths were hilarious and cliched.

So, listen, I know this has been a really long review of this book full of negatives, but I did actually really enjoy it, though sometimes not the way I was meant to (as comedy instead of intense ground-breaking fantasy). I admire the world Schwab has created a fuck ton, and all of these books could so easily have been five star reads (they just weren’t).

Though my main reaction has been disappointment and negativity, that’s only because the hype has been SO MASSIVE for these books. I heard they were the best fantasies ever, and…they’re not. But they are really good, and I plan to buy the full series because I’m willing to read it again someday, so when I say I really liked them (all those things aside), I mean it.

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

 

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One response to “Series Review: Shades of Magic by V.E. Schwab”

  1. The hype really is massive for this series (especially the last one — everyone seems to love it) but I hope to get around to reading soon. I have the first one on audio but see that the narrators change for 2 and 3 so I probably won’t be doing that.
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