Series Review: “Shades of Magic” by VE Schwab

I finished this book on December 28, but I wanted to have all of the First Impression Friday entries done before I went through with this review. I have to say, I am still sitting here, about ten minutes after finishing the last book, just in shock at what I read.

What did I read? One of the best fantasy books I’ve read this year, if not the best fantasy book (I didn’t get to read a lot of books this year, unfortunately). It’s one of those series that will go on a special shelf in my room, knowing that I can always pull it down and open it up and there will be something new to discover between those covers.

A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic, #1)The first book in the series starts you off just enough introduction to get you somewhat familiar with what’s going on, and then it shoves you off the deep end. The characters are weird and yet entirely relatable.

In Red London, You have the magician prince, Kell, who just wants to get away from his adopted family and breathe by himself. He is Antari, able to move between worlds and deliver messages, and to whom all forms of magic comes easily, marked by his solid black eye. There’s the on-display Prince Rhy, who longs for the freedom that he imagines Kell to have. The King and Queen have a clear favorite, and Kell resents it.

In White London, two ruthless twins rule on the throne, Astrid and Athos Dane, with their own captive Antari, Holland. They begin to pull strings and encroach on other Londons, wanting to take absolute power and rid the world of Kell and his entourage.

Then in Grey London, the London with no magic, there’s Lila Bard, who lives in a London that has no magic. She makes her living as a cross-dressing thief, and one day she picks Kell’s pocket as he’s visiting her London, which leads her down a path from which there is no coming back.

But what did Lila pick from Kell’s pocket? A relic of Black London, the London that disappeared centuries ago when their avarice became too much and magic swallowed them whole. The other Londons closed the doors between the worlds, and the only ones who can move between these world are the Antari, of which Holland and Kell are the only ones. What follows is an adventure that spans three worlds, multiple murders, a lot of thievery, and moments that will take your breath away.

The settings, the writing, the characters — everything comes together very nicely in the end, and it almost wraps up so nicely that you could just about leave it here and not read any of the sequels. But why would you do that? You would be missing out on two more amazing books.

A Gathering of Shadows

A Gathering of Shadows (Shades of Magic, #2)This book takes place just four months after the events of the preceding novel (which took place only over a week or so, if I’m remembering correctly?). Lila has become a pirate. Kell is almost under house arrest after the events of the previous book. Rhy is becoming more insufferable.  And the entire kingdom of Arnes is preparing for a tournament of magicians.

All the time, though, dark shadows are growing in White London, Although the previous book ended with White London’s rulers being toppled and Holland being killed, something darker has taken its place. Holland is back, as the new king, but something is off.

This book introduces a slew of new characters – mostly magicians – the main one being Alucard Emery (which, I’m a huge fan of the name Alucard in general). He’s the pirate (cough, privateer) captain of the ship Lila Bard is now crew on, and he’s a magician as well. He’s come back to Arnes (hinting at the dark backstory he shares there, which, wow, that’s a surprise) to participate in the tournament of champions because, surprise, he’s a magician, because of course he is.

We learn that Lila has become a somewhat accomplished magician since running away from Kell at the end of the first novel, although she still doesn’t follow the rules (and with amgic, if you don’t respect it, it just might kill you).

The tournament happens, everything seems to be going okay, and in the last few chapters of the books everything goes to shit. There’s no better way to put that, and I was frantically reading the last few chapters knowing that there weren’t enough pages left to resolve everything but still hoping nevertheless. Alas, it was not to be — the book ends on a cliffhanger and I was at work when I finished it, so I couldn’t even start the third one in a timely manner. (So be warned, make sure you’ve got book three near you before you finish this one.)

What I loved about this one was how effortlessly Schwab starts to pull all of the strings together and the characters start to evolve, too. In the first book, I hated Lila. I constantly told my boyfriend that I wanted her to die, and I started off book two thinking the same thing. I will begrudgingly say that, by the end of this one, I was beginning to at least appreciate Lila, but I’m still not 100% behind her as a character.

A Conjuring of Light

A Conjuring of Light (Shades of Magic, #3)The book is almost double the length of the others, but it still doesn’t feel long enough. It picks up immediately where the last book left off, and I had this terrible feeling throughout the book that I’m going to have to watch some characters that I like be killed off.

This is the one slip-up in the series, in my opinion. (MINOR SPOILER ALERT!) None of the “main” characters, in my opinion, meet their end. (END SPOILER.)

The deaths are tragic when they happen, and some of them are heart-wrenching, but they’re also not 100% surprising. I knew we would be losing some characters, and if you’d given me a notebook back when I was reading book two, I probably could have told you who would live and who would die in this book.

The stakes are much higher, and I will say I read this book nearly on the edge of my seat the entire time, and had to set alarms on my phone so I wouldn’t be late clocking back in from lunch. It’s that good. I kept trying to squeeze in just one more chapter before the alarm went off, but of course time is linear and doesn’t work like that.

Everything wraps up so neatly in the end, which leaves me somewhat conflicted. On the one hand, I appreciate how Schwab was able to tie everything back together and bring all the plotlines to completion by the end of the series. On the other hand, wrapping everything up with a bow is a little bit of a pet peeve of mine. Leave us with some ambiguity! (I mean, there is some, but not nearly enough.) Leave the world open to us, let us hope that maybe, just maybe, we might be able to visit Kell’s world again.

Final Thoughts

So I realize I haven’t done much aside from “Read this, it’s amazing” throughout this review, with some mention of plot and how much I enjoyed how the characters evolved throughout the series.

This is certainly one of the better-written fantasy series that I’ve read. It keeps you guessing, and I will say that I wasn’t really able to predict some of the plot twists. We are given some foreshadowing, and then I spent the next few pages thinking, “No, no, they can’t possibly do that,” just to be proven wrong. That’s what I like in a book. While the whole “different worlds” thing has been done before, this is how you do it. This is how you hold terror and fear over your reader’s head and make them keep reading, even though it’s nearly 2 a.m. and you’ve got to be up at 5 a.m. for work. This is everything I wanted in a fantasy series.

Even more so than characters and plot development, the main thing is that, for the vast majority of the series, there are no romantic subplots. They are basically non-existent in book one, and while there are the beginnings of something in book two, they don’t take away from the rest of the book. In book three, there is some sexual tension and while it is a little forced at some points, it doesn’t feel as unbelievable as some romances in other fantasy novels. The relationships have grown over the course of the three books, and it culminates in something I am more or less satisfied with. (I’d still love to read a series without any sort of romantic subplot, though.)

I give this series a 4.5/5 stars. It’s very, very close to perfect. There are a few missteps here and there (which might not be missteps to other readers, and is probably just an indication of how much I dislike Lila), but the overarching story line is tight and doesn’t ever lose its focus throughout the trilogy.

If you have never read this series, what are you waiting for? Give the first book a shot. (I did, and ordered the sequels nearly immediately after I’d started the first one.) If you have read it, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

And as always, keep reading.

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