Coven Chat: A Gathering of Shadows

A Darker Shade final for IreneA Gathering of Shadows FinalToday is our Coven Chat about V.E. Schwab’s newest book in the Shades of Magic series, A Gathering of Shadows (AGOS). As a reminder, in Coven Chats we assume that our readers have already read the book, so if you’re avoiding spoilers, don’t read on!

If you haven’t read any of the series yet, read Allison’s rec. If you’re looking for our chat about the first book in the series, A Darker Shade of Magic (ADSOM), read Allison and Alyssa’s fangirl ode to Lila Bard. 

The three of us agree that the Shades of Magic books are some of the most exciting books in adult fantasy right now, so please join us in the comments for further chatting about this awesome series. Brew some tea, pull up a cat and let’s get started…

Nicola: My biggest quibble with ADSOM was that I never really felt connected to the characters; I enjoyed the plot and the worldbuilding, but I was missing that intimacy with the characters that makes me truly fall in love with a story. AGOS solves that and I felt that strong personal connection to the main characters. Unsurprisingly, Lila is my favourite character, and I loved the scenes with her on the ship, particularly the opening chapters, but I also really enjoyed Kell and Rhys’ character development and their relationship with each other and their parents.

Alyssa: Lila is still my favorite character, even though I love Kell and Rhys too. I also loved those opening chapters with Lila and her shipmates, especially Alucard.

Allison: I still love Lila most, though I thought she lost her edge a bit this time around, but I think it’s a necessary character arc. I don’t want to see her bravado keep her from having relationships with people. She felt a little lost this book — like she’s looking for purpose, and I’m guessing that’s her overall arc: finding out who and what she is and where she belongs.

Nicola: Yeah, Lila’s arc features much more heavily in this book compared to ADSOM, to the point where the first 50-odd pages are entirely from her POV. I thought this was a good narrative choice, because until the tournament gets started Lila’s story is discrete from those of Kell and Rhys, so it gave a chance for the reader to get grounded in the individual storylines rather than jumping around between the ship and Red London.

Allison: I completely agree. I love that this book felt like “Lila’s” from the beginning, which made me really happy. I also thought AGOS moved a bit slower than ADSOM, which I thought was great. I talked in my recommendation about the fact that it feels like Schwab spent a good amount of time fleshing the characters out this time around and it was completely necessary.

My only “quibble” with it was that the tournament felt a little forced. I understand how it functioned as a narrative device and I’m interested in the fact that Schwab didn’t allow Kell or Lila to win, but if there’s some kind of significance to Alucard winning, it got lost in the big ending.

Alyssa: I agree that the tournament felt a bit forced. Mainly because including a (magical) game/competition is very popular and somewhat cliche. But AGOS treats magical dueling differently. Perhaps because the multiple worlds and magicians in this series are so unique, this tournament doesn’t seem trite. I love that it introduced us to characters from the other empires, so that now we have a better understanding of the geopolitical world of Arnes/Red London. I wish we had an even better understanding of Faro and Veska.

I also found it very interesting that Lila or Kell didn’t win, and I thought that was a clever way of avoiding being cliche. And I am curious to see what happens to Alucard, as well as his complicated relationships with Rhy, Kell and Lila.

Nicola: I think my favourite part of the tournament is Lila’s involvement, not so much because I adore Lila (though I do), but because of how it plays into her character development; she didn’t even know magic existed until a few months ago, she has almost no experience, she shouldn’t even be able to do magic at all, and she’s entering into a tournament against people to whom magic comes as easily as breathing. I’m glad she didn’t win, because that would have felt incredibly contrived, but it was interesting to see her enter and compete in the first place.

Alyssa: Yes, definitely. And I love how Schwab uses Lila’s inexperience with her abilities to emphasize the importance of magical balance. Like Kell, she struggles with the darker side of magic, when it becomes dangerous and chaotic; but, unlike Kell, she’s just starting to understand her own powers. I really like that Lila discovers she’s more powerful than she could have ever imagined, but that she’s still defeated in the tournament and realizes that she has limitations.

Allison: I completely agree with everything you both have said. The tournament itself is a great way for us to understand more about the series’ system of magic and its added bonus is that we get to understand all of the new characters better, as well as the way Red London is situated in the rest of its world. The set-up is great, it just seemed a little rushed to me at the beginning and Lila’s decision to participate felt very impulsive, even for her. Don’t get me wrong, I love how it all works out!

Alyssa: Yes, although the tournament is a bit rushed and abrupt in its execution, it’s an excellent way to introduce us to Arnes’s surrounding empires and a fabulous new cast of characters. Alucard is my favorite new character, and I’m glad that we can fall in love with him first, in those opening scenes with Lila, before we find out that Kell strongly dislikes him because he broke Rhys’s heart. But Kell’s negative feelings towards Alucard didn’t lessen my love for him. Now I find the lord-turned-pirate even more intriguing.

Allison: I love Alucard. I think he’s a fantastic character and there’s nothing I love more than a sexy pirate with a heart of gold. I can’t wait to know all his secrets. Or not know them… Just more Alucard, please!!

Alyssa: Yes, please. I love the scenes with him and Lila. They are some of my favorite parts of AGOS. Even though I love Lila and Kell, I also love Lila and Alucard.

Nicola: Okay, I confess, I’m totally shipping Lila and Alucard. I’m also shipping Lila and Kell, and Rhy and Alucard, admittedly, but I think Lila and Alucard have a lot in common, even though Lila grew up in poverty and Alucard comes from wealth; they both hide behind a mask of bravado and general badassery and pretend not to feel when they do in fact feel rather deeply, and I think for them to be themselves around each other requires more courage and personal growth than with other people, because it would be so easy for them both to hide and keep up the light-hearted banter.

Allison: I’m actually shipping Lila and Lila… I’m not altogether that interested in her having a romantic attachment. For me, the best endgame scenario would be that she gets her pirate ship and Kell gets his freedom, with perhaps the hint of promise that in the future they might have a future. Of course the next book will reveal a lot.

I think there’s so much between Rhy and Alucard that seems fraught and angsty, so I like that a lot. I do love a tortured love story. I’m also sort of hoping that Holland is going to somehow be a contender for Rhy’s love. Not sure why, but I feel like those crazy kids could make things work.

Alyssa: I’m shipping Lila and Kell, Rhy and Alucard. But, as much as I’m rooting for romance, I agree with Allison that I’d rather have Lila fulfill her own dreams of adventure and freedom aboard her own pirate ship than settle into a relationship by the end of this series. I don’t think it will bother me if the series ends without the love stories being resolved at the end.

However, I do want to know more about Lila’s and Kell’s pasts. When Kell asks the queen “Who’s my mother?” is an interesting moment and a substantial hint that the queen knows about his parentage and his past. We better learn more about Kell’s past in the next book. (Lila’s past, too.) What are you hoping for next?

Nicola: Yeah, I agree with both of you that the ending I want most for Lila is for her to get her pirate ship and to be honest, even though I’m shipping her with Alucard/Kell I don’t really see her settling into a solid relationship anytime soon. She’s got other priorities.

As for the rest of the story, I’m glad that Kell’s relationship with the king and queen is finally a bit more honest in AGOS. I had hoped a little that we’d get to know a bit more about his parentage, but his moment with the queen indicated that the subject hasn’t been dropped, so I expect we’ll get to learn more in the next book.

Allison: I agree, this book put us on the right track to understanding who these characters are in the moment, but I’m looking forward to understanding why they are who they are.  

Alyssa: Me, too. And I want to understand the worlds better. MAPS, PLEASE!

Nicola: OMG yes! I got really confused by some of the geography because I assumed these were parallel worlds, not just parallel Londons, so I expected Red London to be in the southeast of an island. It isn’t.

Allison: Oh yes. I’m needing a bit of clarification on how the “Londons” fit together, as well as how they’re situated in the four separate worlds. It was a bit of a game changer to realize that they aren’t parallel universes. Really, for me, just more about the four worlds altogether. That’s one of my favorite things about this series.

Nicola: Me too. And knowing that these are four separate worlds opens up a whole new slew of questions. Are there other cities in any of these worlds that exist in yet other worlds? Or is London an anomaly? And just wh
at is the rest of the world outside Black London like? I don’t expect to get answers to all these
questions, but I admit, I’m intrigued.

: Oh yes. I think there’s so much more to know and I know I speak for all of us when I say the wait feels too long until the204432352044320716069030 next book! If you’re looking for a series you can read start to finish right now, our next Coven Chat is about a series that’s winding down: The Winner’s Trilogy, by Marie Rutkoski. See you next week, book witches!


Pirates and Magicians: V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic Series

A year ago, AlysA Gathering of Shadows Finalsa 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 A Darker Shade final for Irenefor 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. 


“We Love Lila!”: A Darker Shade of Magic

As it happens, Allison and Alyssa read V.E. Schwab’s new novel, A Darker Shade of Magic. Rather than have a “Lila-like” fight over who would recommend it, we’re joining forces to discuss it together.

A Darker Shade of Magic is Schwab’s second adult novel (she also writes for YA and MG audiences), which is important to note because the book can get, well, adult at times. Schwab spends a good portion of the beginning of the novel establishing the dynamic between four parallel Londons. 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. It’s to Schwab’s credit that she can make four distinct Londons come alive.

Schwab’s worldbuilding is sublime in this novel, but her characters make it a book we were both dying to recommend. The novel’s protagonist Kell is Red London’s royal emissary and one of the few magicians left in the world who can travel between the Londons. When he crosses paths with Grey London’s Lila Bard, a cross-dressing thief, the story really starts to get interesting.

Allison: I’ve been pretty open about the fact that I love Lila Bard on Twitter. What did you think about her?

Alyssa: I love Lila too! She’s stealthy, clever, witty, tough, independent, confident, and brave. Lila is an ideal heroine, but she’s not perfect (a good thing). She’s authentic and unique, but she also reminds me of other fictional “kick ass” heroines I’ve grown to love: Buffy, Celaena (Throne of Glass), and Katsa (Graceling). But Lila’s perhaps more lovable than those characters because she’s not an assassin or a slayer.

Allison: I totally agree. I think it’s her vulnerability that really gets me. She’s not Buffy, Caleana or Katsa in that she doesn’t have any “chosen one” special powers for most of the story (though I’m wondering if that’s going to change in subsequent books). All of her power comes from hard won experience on the streets.

I read a review where someone called her “unsympathetic at times” and I didn’t find that to be true at all. Maybe it’s because she’s so ruthless? I don’t know, I kind of loved that about her. To me, Lila is what every good pirate or thief should be: arrogant and smart-mouthed. I think when thieves and pirates are men and are those things we call them “dashing” — I’m willing to  say it: Lila is all kinds of dashing.

Some of the reviews I read talked about her “ambitiousness” in a slightly negative way. I feel like what lots of people are reacting to is that there’s some big gender role-reversal going on. I think you could switch Kell and Lila’s names around and the novel would fall into something most people would recognize as a typical fantasy adventure, albeit a progressive one. Kell isn’t weak, but he’s certainly more sensitive than Lila.

Alyssa: I agree with you. She is ruthless, but she’s had to be to survive — and to survive on her own. And I don’t think she’s an unsympathetic character either. I like that she’s not consumed with shame and self-doubt. She believes in herself and in her abilities to survive, and she’s strong-willed, unapologetic, and doesn’t feel sorry for herself. I think those are positive attributes in this case; especially considering how women are supposed to behave in this society.

I love this book’s gender role-reversal and that she subverts female stereotypes. She craves adventure above all else, and, you’re right, if she were a male character this would be a typical fantasy adventure. She gets into plenty of scrapes, but she’s never a “damsel in distress” and she often fights off her foes or comes to Kell’s rescue. She’s willing to fight or even kill anyone who threatens her or stands in her way, but she also develops more of a conscience as her friendship with Kell develops.

Allison: I could talk about Lila for hours, but I’m dying to know what you thought of Kell, since the story is ostensibly about him.

Alyssa: In some ways he is more stereotypically female, and he’s also had a cushier upbringing (even if he doesn’t always see it that way). One of my favorite parts in the book is when Lila gets annoyed at Kell for feeling sorry for himself. He views himself as the royal family’s prized possession, but Lila insists he is part of a family — and a royal one at that — which is more than Lila can imagine for herself.

Allison: Another thing to love about Lila, she’s not afraid to snap Kell back to reality! Even though Lila is certainly not as well traveled or educated as Kell, I feel like he’s the one that sometimes needs to have his worldview rearranged. Overall, I like Kell. I think Schwab is building something with him that will get more complex as time goes on.

Alyssa: Me too. Especially considering he smuggles forbidden magical objects, making him morally complex as well. It’s interesting how I feel about Kell. I like him too, but Lila is the more dashing character. I didn’t fall for Kell like I do some of the swoon-worthy male characters in books. Nor did I want him and Lila to necessarily develop a romance, and I enjoyed their adventurous friendship.

Allison: I know, right? I like their slightly chaste “kiss for luck” tradition. It feels friendly and not particularly sexy. Even if a romance develops later on, I love reading a story about men and women where they can be friends and partners, without being in love right away.

Allison Carr Waechter has never felt the urge to sail the high seas, but if she shoots you in the leg, it’ll be for a Lila-like reason. This week she’s stuck in mundane Grey St. Louis, watching the rain wash away the snow as she grades resumes and cover letters for her business writing course. If you want to help her procrastinate, hit her up on Twitter.

Alyssa Raymond is dreaming of faraway places as she awaits yet another snow storm. In the summer she would rather steal treasures that have washed ashore than sail amidst the many sea monsters that invade Marblehead Harbor. As soon as the snow banks melt, you’ll find her hanging out with the witches in Salem. Until then, she’s on Twitter.