A sequel that matches the quality of its predecessor, giving us more of the characters we love and introducing some quirky new ones to the impressive roster.
Immediately after finishing A Darker Shade of Magic, I dived straight in to the sequel. I was completely enamoured with the first book and couldn’t wait for the next. I was not disappointed. This isn’t a story about the conflict of heroes and villains, but more the conflict of very human characters and their circumstances. It’s a nice change from the all too familiar focal point of good versus evil.
Four months after the events of a Darker Shade of Magic, Rhy and Kell are working out the boundaries of their new bond, while Kell’s freedom is severely restricted after the part he played in the taint of Vitari infecting Red London. Using her skills as a thief, Lila has ingrained herself within the crew of the Night Spire, under the command and tutelage of Alucard Emery. All of their paths are destined to cross with the upcoming Essen Tasch – a tournament where the most gifted magicians in the world compete.
There was an odd quirk to this book. One not present in A Darker Shade of Magic. That quirk – the story is completely unpredictable. Throughout the whole book I did not know what was going to happen next. And the true genius of this was that, from beginning to end, I had the sense that Schwab knew exactly where she was taking us, navigating with a deft hand through the unknown. It is a very rare commodity to read a book and have the ability to predict the outcome taken away from you, and that made it all the more engrossing.
The true art behind this is that the pacing and the overarching story were so completely different from its predecessor. No longer were we clinging to the threat of White London, anticipating the inevitable climax between Kell, Lila and the Danes. Instead, we are coaxed in to the Essen Tasch; a tournament amongst allies. This unexpected diversion gives us the unique benefit of being able to explore the complexities of some very-well nurtured characters. Not only characters that we know, but those who are new and exciting.
And what a roster of characters it is. Kell, who was excellent in the previous novel, is even better here. There is more conflict between his perceived place amongst the royal family and the idea that he is nothing more than just their weapon. His relationship with Rhy is wonderful. So full of brotherly love, but also acrimony and fear over the sacrifices they have made for each other. When Kell feels betrayed, so do we. We writhe against his treatment, bitter over the way he is dehumanised. Lila, no longer just a thief, flourishes amongst the crew of the Night Spire. She is very much the same character that we know, but her sharp edges are more on show. For the whole story, Lila keeps her self as an enigma to everyone in the story, but Schwab draws us in to her confidence as if getting to know this displaced thief is a subtle conspiracy that we must keep from the rest of the characters. We feel this none more so than when we see her rare softness for those she holds close. Finally getting to see the goodness in a character so unwilling to show it is a hard-earned victory that you can’t help but feel proud of.
There are two new main characters to this book. One obvious, the other subtle. The obvious is the charismatic Alucard Emery. He steals every page he is on. So open, yet so mysterious. His character is seen predominantly through Lila’s eyes, who has proven from the beginning to be such a good judge of character, so we always feel that we know him, trust him, maybe even when we shouldn’t. There are hints of animosity from other characters, allusions that he might not be quite so harmlessly roguish as we first think. When we discover the truth and see beneath the folds of that confidence, it is an unexpected surprise. The other character is Ojka. Ojka is truly wonderous. We are entrapped by her awe as she witnesses the rebirth of her dying world. We know that she is cold and hard, like forged steel, but beneath that is the innocence of someone who has not been given the chance to develop and blossom because of the harshness of her world. There is almost a childlike quality to the way she reveres her new king, but a very adult approach to how she protects him.
Just because the main thread of the novel focuses on the tournament, that does not mean that there isn’t an imminent threat lurking in the background. It is through Ojka that we witness this threat, an undercurrent to the main story, promising to pull you under, but never doing so when you expect it. The references to White London are fleeting, but it never leaves you thinking it is section of the plot that is underdeveloped. Instead, it lets the main plot blossom and carry through a natural course. The only issue with this, however, is that it can leave this story feel like it is only half way through when you read those last few words. And, in truth, it is. I do not have a problem with this. Firstly, because I have the next entry in my Kindle library ready read. But, more importantly, because I love the idea of narrative threads carrying through a series, developing more and more over time. In this sense, a cliff-hanger is only an enticement to keep you addicted to the series, and there is nothing I love more than that pull to read the next book. Especially when the series is as good as this.
In A Gathering of Shadows, Schwab takes us on a much more personal journey than last time. She shows us her love for her characters and nurtures in us that same passion. The true danger is far more underlying than last time, but it is always there, an ominous threat promising a rewarding outcome. This book is a triumph of not only storytelling, but also character development.