A Gathering of Shadows by V. E. Schwab

When I was describing this book to my boyfriend, he asked me “Did you write this book?” The answer of course being no, but I wish I had. There’s so many elements of this book (no pun intended) that I love, from the character interactions to the worldbuilding to the main plot driver, which in this book is basically the Magic Olympics. A Gathering of Shadows does, in a few ways, suffer from Middle-Book-of-Trilogy syndrome, but overall, it manages to feel really satisfying and not too much like it’s just bridging books one and three.

The opener of this book, the sequel to A Darker Shade of Magic, focuses primarily on Delilah Bard, and her making her way in the world of Red London, no longer stuck in her boring old familiar Grey London. She manages to steal and sneak her way into the crew of the Night Spire, a privateer ship under the command of the enigmatic and charming Captain Alucard Emery (that name, right?). We also get to see Kell and Rhy again, both suffering from the consequences of the previous book, when Kell magically linked his life to Rhy’s own to bring him back to life – and how that permanent bond affects each of them differently.

The main driver of the plot – for both characters – is the upcoming Essen Tasch, or Element Games. Twelve magicians each from Arnes (where Red London is) and their neighboring countries of Faro and Vesk come to compete in elemental magic duels, fighting to determine a victor. It’s like the Triwizard Tournament but all grown-up. Both of our leads, Lila and Kell alike, end up in disguise to illegally compete in the tournament. Lila, since arriving in this world, has worked diligently to hone her magical skills – something she shouldn’t even have – and further hints are dropped that she is another Antari like Kell, unbeknownst to both of them.

Of course, Alucard Emery is also one of the selected competitors, and also I love him. He’s a dashing pirate – or, uh, privateer – and a wizard and he’s flashy and flamboyant and charming. Lila and Kell and Rhy (and – surprise – Holland), the main characters of the previous volume, carry the plot and the narration, but Alucard makes such a good addition to the cast. Over the course of the book – since the main characters spend much of it apart – we find out that he’s a noble, and that he has some kind of dark past with Kell and Rhy. (Spoilers forthcoming) Hints are dropped about why they hate him – did he commit some type of crime? Did he renounce his noble title? – but in the end it turns out to be perfectly ordinary heartbreak. Alucard and Rhy had been lovers in the past, but Alucard had broken Rhy’s heart and Kell told him never to return to London, or he’d kill him. Gay wizard pirate princes is about all I could ever ask for in a book and it’s phenomenal. (End spoilers)

I think the Essen Tasch is great as a framing device for the story, and as a really neat worldbuilding aspect. We get a glimpse into Arnes’ relationship with its neighbors and the underlying politics; we see the world beyond just London. This book spends less time jaunting between Red and White and Grey London, spending more time in the world surrounding Red London. It gives it context, where previously it was lacking some of that. In another recent review, I complained about sci-fi and fantasy of late (by which I mean at least the last 30 years), being full of fantastical versions of London, but I listed A Darker Shade of Magic as a book that does it way better than pretty much all of the others. I stand by that here, perhaps even moreso now.

I love seeing how all the characters bounce off each other now, in different combinations than in the previous book and with the relationships clearly affected by the events of the previous book. Kell and Rhy’s relationship has changed, since their lives have been linked together, but they’re no less brotherly than ever. The king and queen’s newfound lack of trust in Kell is another driving factor of the book, playing hugely into the climax. Alucard complicates the relationship between Kell and Lila, but they get some fantastic moments together – not only is there a Big Damn Kiss, but there’s also the moment when they finally come face to face as competitors in the Essen Tasch and it’s so tense and fun and great.

This book does take a little while to really get underway – the Essen Tasch doesn’t actually start until about the final third of the book – but there’s so much other stuff going on that it doesn’t feel slow or unengaging. As I said, it definitely has a small amount of Middle-Book syndrome. There’s a recurring subplot that shows Holland and what’s going on in White London, but it doesn’t actually amount to anything until the final pages of the book, and that just leaves us on a cliffhanger for the next one. It’s a pretty common problem for the middle book (or movie or game) in a trilogy to be spent mostly setting up the third book, but this is a pretty minor case.

This is a really great follow-up to the first book, and I’m eager to see how the series ends in the next book, A Conjuring of Light, which came out in February. There’s so many questions still to be answered, and so much still to happen, and I want answers, but I don’t want it to be over.

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