A year ago, Alyssa and I fell so in love with Victoria Schwab’s book A Darker Shade of Magic that we teamed up to discuss it with each other, rather than writing individual recommendations. Looking back, it was probably one of our first Coven Chats. This year, the second book in Schwab’s series, A Gathering of Shadows is out and Nicola will join our conversation later in the week. For now, I want to recommend the series to you (Warning: very minor spoilers for ADSOM ahead).
Schwab’s series is set in four different Londons. You could think of them as parallel universes, but that hasn’t really been explained just yet. All we know is that Black, White, Grey and Red London are all very different, with certain geographical touch points that allow someone like Kell, an unusually skilled magician, to travel between them. In our last chat about the series we described the Londons as such:
In Red London magic exists harmoniously with the mundane. Most readers will recognize Regency era Grey London, where magic has died out. White London is ruled by tyrannical siblings who savagely abuse magic. And Black London is a mystery; Schwab only lets us know that its citizens were destroyed by magic and that the doors in and out have been sealed.
In AGOS, the big difference is that we know more about all four Londons. Though Black London still remains the biggest mystery, we do get a peek inside, and a trickle of its mystery makes its way into the three most active Londons. Schwab’s worldbuilding is consistently amazing. The Londons all feel very real, which seems to me a difficult feat to achieve. They are so different, yet Schwab makes them easy to understand and imagine. Which is completely fantastic, because they are the backdrop for some of fantasy’s best characters.
The series centers itself primarily around Lila Bard, a citizen of Grey London who ends up staying in Red London after the end of the first book and Kell an extremely talented practitioner of magic. Kell is what is known as an Antari, he can wield all elemental magic (air, fire, water and earth), as well as blood magic. This ability makes it possible for him to pass between Londons, carrying messages between the royalty there. He is the adopted son of the royal family in Red London, though he often feels used by his family for his magical abilities.
When Kell and Lila meeting in ADSOM they discover that she also seems to be able to cross between worlds. The “tell” that a magician is an Antari is that one eye is completely black, both Kell and his counterpart from White London, Holland, have this obvious physical marker. We are led to believe that there is a possibility that Lila is also an Antari, by virtue of the fact that she can travel between worlds and one of her eyes is missing.
In A Darker Shade of Magic, Kell finds himself in possession of a dark object from Black London that is leaking toxic magic between worlds. When he meets Lila, she insists on inserting herself into his adventure and their partnership begins. Though they share a kiss in ADSOM, there is not much focus on a possible romantic relationship, as Lila’s main goal in life is to have adventures. At the end of ADSOM, she leaves Kell to seek danger on the high seas and Kell returns to palace life.
Lila Bard returns in AGOS with more depth and her characteristic sass. She continues to bend gender norms, comfortably cross dress and her tongue is as sharp as ever. We do get to see a little of Lila’s softer side in this book, as her character develops. We get to see her struggle with her growing attachment to several different people, including Alucard Emery (a privateer) and her desire to sabotage those relationships to protect herself. Of course, Kell is one of those characters.
Like Lila, we get to understand more about Kell’s motivations in AGOS, though many of the mysteries set up in ADSOM about Kell’s origins and how he became a member of the royal family are still murky. Instead, we get the chance to understand Kell’s attachment to his adoptive family and the depth of his duty to Red London. Near the end, we begin to see his trust in his adoptive parents unravel as Kell is once again set upon the path to adventure between worlds.
One thing that differs a lot in AGOS from ADSOM is that the pace of the adventure slows a bit, though the pace of the writing moves quickly. There’s still a lot of action, but Schwab uses a magical contest in Red London to bring her characters together and to slow things down a bit so we can get to know Lila, Kell and the other characters better. The other benefit to this is that we get to know more about the world Red London is apart of. In ADSOM we learned a lot about the different Londons, but not a lot about how they are situated in their own home worlds.
For me, this was a great move. I do love an adventure story, but only if I care about the characters. Kell and Lila were so engaging in the first novel that it was easy to enjoy the intense journey they were on together, especially with Schwab’s talent for worldbuilding, but to stay invested I need to know characters well enough to care, and I think that really happens in AGOS.
I recommend these books to folks who enjoy YA fantasy adventures, but are perhaps looking for something a bit more adult. The series is definitely dark in a way more characteristic to adult fantasy and the characters are a bit older. If you love pirates, gender bending, and fresh worldbuilding, I think these are for you.
Allison Carr Waechter is struck with severe seasonal allergies. Luckily she has a Kindle full of books to keep her company while her anti-histamines get to work.