A Gathering of Shadows is V.E. Schwab’s second book in the Shades of Magic series which features several alternate versions of London with varying degrees of magic and special magicians with one black eye who are the only ones able to walk between worlds. Tor Books | January 17, 2017 (first published February 23, 2016) | Paperback | 512 pp
In A Darker Shade of Magic, we met Kell, an adopted member of the royal family in Red London and their only Antari, a blood magician who can enter all of the different worlds to deliver messages between kingdoms. The only other Antari was Holland from White London, a place where magic had gone cold and color was leached from the world. Holland had no will of his own, bound by the cruel and powerful royal siblings of White London, and he betrayed Kell because he was ordered to. Kell accidentally sweeps up a sidekick from Grey London (our world) in the form of Delilah (‘Lila’) Bard, and together they defeated White London’s rulers and Holland, and managed to return a dead artifact back to Black London. It ends with Kell and Lila parting ways in Red London.
In A Gathering of Shadows, the story begins several months down the road. Kell is miserable. Fist of all, he misses Lila and wonders what adventures she could be up to. He’s jealous of her freedom. Kell is tethered to the royal palace and now he is bound to Rhy, his brother and future king. Rhy nearly died in the first book and the only way for Kell to save him was to permanently bind Rhy to his soul with magic. If Kell dies, Rhy dies. So now the King wants Kell guarded and confined to make sure his real son stays alive. It’s made Kell feel even less like a son and more like property, or a prisoner. The words of Holland also continuously echo in Kell’s ear: that’s he’s weak because he never had to fight for his life. But for Kell, there is no outlet except for some fighting lessons in a confined space.
Rhy can sense his brother’s gloominess. Now that he is bound to Kell, he can sense everything. If Kell gets injured, Rhy will feel it. If Rhy is hurt, Kell will immediately know and go looking for him. They now share emotions, pain and pleasure, and neither one are very happy about it. But they are still as close as can be, each one willing to die for the other.
The Essen Tasch is coming up, a competition of magic between three kingdoms and Rhy has a plan. He’s going to secretly enter Kell as a contestant which is highly illegal, but he’s doing it out of love. The chance to duel will lighten Kell’s spirits and bring him back to the world. Since the contestants are masked, it shouldn’t be a problem. Kell just can’t win the entire game because of the unmasking ceremony of the last three competitors standing. But winning isn’t the goal – having Kell return to his normal self is.
On one of the many ships docking at London for the Essen Tasch is Lila, coming back from her own adventure and excited to see Kell. She misses him as well. Coming from Grey London, never even knowing magic existed, and always wanting an adventure on a pirate ship, Lila got more than she had ever dreamed. She shouldn’t even be able to do magic, but there is more to Lila than meets the ‘eye’ – such as one glass eye that Kell never noticed. Trained by a former pirate, Lila is now a powerful magician. And she’s set on sneaking into the Essen Tasch just like Kell. They have no idea that they will be battling each other as masked competitors.
But it’s not all about the competition. Holland is back from the dead in White London and he’s brought back dark magic from Black London with him. The dark king wants to conquer a new world, and Red London looks perfect.
A Gathering of Shadows is the quintessential ‘middle book’ let down in several aspects (but not all). The plot is nonessential and the story chiefly consists of character development. A new central character is introduced: Alucard Emery, another contender in the games. He is a former pirate, current privateer, a strong magician, Lila’s mentor, Rhy’s lover, and Kell’s nemesis. There is guaranteed to be an explosion when everyone is face to face and Kell finds out that Lila has been with his archenemy this entire time.
The character of Lila Bard has been slowly built upon with brief memories of her recent training which reveal her power bit by bit. Knowing that she has one glass eye is telling. But will the truth finally be put out there in the open? Even Lila doesn’t know who she is or what she is. All she knows is that she is powerful but she has yet to learn that balance of magical abilities is necessary. Her crew mates are terrified of her.
“So you think I’m here for a reason?” she asked.
Lenos rocked from heel to toe. “We’re all here for a reason, Bard. Some reasons are just bigger than others. So I guess I’m not scared of who you are, or even what you are. I’m scared of why you are.”
Lila is a difficult character to like. On one hand, her relationship with Kell is desired by the reader – they are attractive opposites, so to speak. And they made each other smile. Kell is a likable guy – he cares about his kingdom, he cares about his brother, and acknowledges the balance of power, and he’s a kind soul. Lila cares about herself. She doesn’t like getting close to people and she would rather kill you instead of making nice. She fights dirty and to get into the contest, she pulls some nasty moves. I’m not exactly rooting for her at this point. I might laugh if she dies.
Although we have serious middle-book syndrome complete with the dreaded cliffhanger, we have stronger connections to the characters and society. And the way it was left gives you no alternative but to dive into book three, which is where I’m headed.
A Gathering of Shadows is a slow burn that binds you to the world of Red London and all the magic is has to offer.
A Darker Shade of Magic
by V.E. Schwab