Friday, 26 February 2016

A Gathering of Shadows


Book Title: A Gathering of Shadows
Author: V. E. Schwab
Series: Shades of Magic #2
Date Started: February 20th 2016
Date Completed: February 26th 2016
Genres: Fantasy, Adventure
Quality Rating: Four Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Five Star
Final Rating: Five stars

I have to say, I wasn't as blown away by A Gathering of Shadows as I was at A Darker Shade of Magic, but at the same time reading this story felt like coming home. Maybe the reason I wasn't so amazed was because I already knew how amazing Schwab's stories can be, so instead I felt comforted and happy while reading - that is until Schwab started breaking my heart into little pieces.

The magic system in Schwab's world is really interesting; it follows some of the more traditional idea of magic, with the idea of manipulation of the elements, but there's lots of new twists added in. I felt the exploration of the magic itself was a little less adventurous than in A Darker Shade of Magic. We aren't really going back and forth between worlds this time, so its a lot more focused on Red London's individual magic system. I have to say, I personally preferred the diversity in the writing when we were jumping between all these different worlds, not least because of the contrast in their descriptions and the way magic works there. The world building is definitely stronger when we get to see all the Londons, but I appreciate that this sequel was more about the characters.

A Gathering of Shadows doesn't have an obvious plot, but you don't notice that as you're reading. It's like moving pieces on a chess board, and while I does have elements of second-book-syndrome with a filler-book style, the things that are happening are still important and interesting. To be honest I trust Schwab enough to read a whole series of moving characters into their places if she can make it as engaging and fascinating as she did here. And if she can put in as many little twists and one liners that just make me smile, I'd happily read more.
The inclusion and importance of friendships also did a lot for me: this story is a lot to do with the development of relationships and how that changes the characters, which consequently changes the world. Pretty basic stuff. But it's not often that friendship is actually the basis of these changes - usually it's love, whether familial or romantic - but seeing such close relationships that aren't focused around sexual attraction but are just as influential is a really nice breath of fresh air.
And finally, the brilliant cliffhanger. I'm not a huge fan of cliffhangers as a general rule, because it usually relies on your reader having to go on to read even more, and having a story stand on its own is a really valuable skill. But for Schwab, I'll take it. It avoided being irritating because the whole story is building towards it; it hasn't just come out of the blue to lure the audience into buying more books, and while of course I want to know what happens next, I'm actually pretty happy to wait for Schwab to work it out in her own time. It's the kind of cliffhanger where I need the rest, but I'm happy to wait for the extra bit of quality.

The characters of these Londons are definitely what this story is built around. In high fantasy (can I call it high fantasy? It has our world in it, historically speaking) you tend to get stories built around the worlds themselves, with people thrown in to keep the plot moving. But Schwab likes building on her characters, even within singular books, and because of this I fell in love with them all over again. (I also have to give a special mention to Hastra, who is quite frankly the sweetest person I've ever come across in a book.)
Kell is an interesting protagonist. He does suffer a little bit from the 'scowling main character' trope, but there's a lot more to him as well. I have to say, I am more engaged with his character when he's dealing with the various monarchs from the other Londons (as opposed to just being at home and trying to deal with the people he's close to), but there's still something about his character that makes you want to have him as a friend.
And then of course, we have actual goddess Delilah Bard. I could talk about the importance of strong female characters, but Lila already has that covered. It's also really nice to see a female character that isn't even necessarily the main protagonist, but still has an awful lot of importance in the story, and power over her own life and mentality, while being able to wear a dress if she wants to. And have the sharp wit in her dialogue to make me smile quite a few times.
Interestingly enough, I don't really remember how I felt about Rhy in the first book. Thinking back on it, I don't know how that's possible since he's such an eccentric and distinguishable character, but I really don't. Not that it matters because I adore him now: from a literary perspective, it's really good to have someone that balances out Kell's scowls, but even past that the way Schwab is so naturally able to make aa very flirty, at times teasingly irritating, and potentially womanising character likeable is impressive to say the least.

A Gathering of Shadows actually surprised me by how strong the pacing was considering that very little actually happens. The tournament everything's pivoting around doesn't actually take place until the last third of the book, and even then we're too busy focusing on everything else for it to dominate the plot - but there wasn't one point in this book where I was bored or feeling lost. I didn't know where we were going, but Schwab's confidence definitely echoed in the story because I was happy to just go wherever it took me (and I think having that trust in an author is quite a rare thing for a lot of people). It was definitely worth the wait.

This series is absolutely wonderful, and I think so many people would enjoy reading it. There's the classic high fantasy elements that I love, but a touch of something more familiar to urban fantasy as well. I would especially say the Shades of Magic series is a good way to transition from Young Adult to Adult fiction: there's a lot of common ground between the two, but a gentle nudge towards heavier world building, and a deeper look at characters as individuals. But even past that, this series just swallows you up and won't let you go again until you've read everything in sight.

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