Titles: A Darker Shade of Magic, A Gathering of Shadows and A Conjuring of Light
Author: V.E. Schwab
Ratings:★★★★☆, ★★★★★ and★★★★½
Synopsis of the first book:
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.
How can I begin to discuss this series? Sometimes talking about the things you love is hard, but to fully explain why you become emotionally attached to something is… There are very few books that change you as a reader, for me these are among those few. That said, I’m going to explain my reasons.
Magic is a hard thing to write. It can easily become just another mechanic of the world, something that the characters take for granted, so eventually the reader does too. That’s not to say that this type of books can’t be good or worthwhile: they often are. But the magic that comes hand in hand with wonder, the one that makes you wish the world were more. The magic in this series ranges from whimsical to twisted, but it never ceases to dazzle. Schwab’s writing allows for some beautiful imagery, but she also brings old tropes to new heights; many implications of teleporting, for instance, are explored both in fun ways and dramatic ones. These are the type of books that make you fall in love with magic all over again.
[The water] behaved like ribbon in their hands, twisting and curling through the air, as if by magic.
Of course, thought Lila, it is by magic.
The worlds are also very vivid and distinct from each other. These novels thrive on the world building rather than being weighed down by it. I can totally see more books set in this universe because of how rich it is. Schwab also never falls into common traps and makes the world diverse, with many characters being explicitly people of color, which is something I always appreciate in fantasy (why is this not the norm by now?).
I adored the characters. By the end of the series, there wasn’t a character in the main cast that I wasn’t invested in. That’s mainly because Schwab goes to great lengths to fully develop and given them arcs tightly connected to the plot. I even grew to love Holland by the last book due to how well written his character was. I always love when authors challenge my own perception of their characters as the series go on (another good example would be ASoIaF‘s Jaime Lannister). There is good mix of moral ambiguity and adorableness in the cast. And a male character who is canonically bisexual from the first chapter where he is introduced! A genderfluid pirate/thief! A snarky privateer! A very dramatic prince! I could go on and on… The banter is hilarious.
“You tried to seduce me, for information.”
“You can’t hold against me forever.”
“It was last night.”
I have to mention that these books are definitely more character-driven than plot-driven, especially the second book where the stakes lie on the characters’ individual arcs. The plots are generally tight, and carry enough tension to keep you going, but they can get slow at times. Personally, I was so invested in the characters and world that I did not mind it much, but I can see why it might other types of readers. Some of the rules regarding magic did seem a little arbitrary (I’m thinking of a particular moment in the last book where suddenly a new rule about teleporting holds back the characters without previous foreshadowing), but they didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment.
But the storytelling itself is amazing. Everything feels earned; it carries weight. The turns are not there for shock value, but to actually advance the characters’ arcs or general plot. When a character dies (and many do), it has consequences: the other characters don’t just get sad for a paragraph and keep going. By the end, you feel how the characters have grown, that they’ve earned and lost. It is one of the most rewarding reading experiences I have had because of this.