A Conjuring of Light

Warning: ALL the spoilers.

A precarious equilibrium among the four Londons has reached its breaking point. Once brimming with the red vivacity or magic, darkness casts a shadow over the Maresh Empire, leaving space for another London to rise. Kell – once assumed to be the last surviving Antari – begins to waver under the pressure of competing loyalties. Lila Bard, once a commonplace – but never common – thief, has survived and flourished through a series of magical trials. But now she must learn to control the magic, before it bleeds her cry.

Meanwhile, the disgraced Captain Alucard Emery and the Night Spire Crew are attempting a race against time to acquire the impossible, as an ancient enemy returns to claim a crown and a fallen hero is desperate to save a decaying world…

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In my review for A Gathering of Shadows, I talked about my love for the series coming out of my connection to the characters – a connection which, to be totally honest, I don’t often form when reading fantasy novels. I wrote that I generally find that in such books, plot has a higher importance than character development, which is fine for some. But me? I’m really more of a character-driven reader.

I had started to think that maybe you could only have one element, that perhaps a dense, fantastical plot always meant two-dimensional characters.

Nope. Somehow, Shwab does both.

And she does it good.

A Conjuring of Light, on the surface, is a book about a kingdom battling for survival against a huge and inexplicable evil.

Don’t get me wrong. I was into it. Osaron is terrifying! And that scene when he kills King Maxim? Harrowing. The Ferase Stras? Let’s go. Maybe Maris will give me a job. I can totally see myself working in a magical floating market.

But perhaps even more than its twisting, breath-taking and at times, heart-wrenching plot, A Conjuring of Light was a book about change and how that fucker is always coming for you.

Kell has known since A Darker Shade of Magic that his life as a glorified messenger boy is not enough for him. This dissatisfaction shows itself in various ways, from illegal smuggling of objects between worlds, to blindly following strange women (how could he not tell Ojka was a sketchy individual? It’s as if knowing Lila had taught him nothing) into unknown dangers. Kell’s desire to leave the palace is at odds with his loyalty to his kingdom and his love for his family, especially that for his brother. As a result, this unfulfilled desire comes out in self (and sometimes kingdom) destructive behaviours. In case none of that made it obvious enough what this guy really wants, he goes and falls in love with Delilah Bard, the girl who will never stop wandering.

‘Her hands were bandaged, a deep scratch ran along her jaw, and Rhy watched as his brother moved toward her as naturally as if the world had simply tipped. For Kell, apparently, it had.’

Meanwhile the responsibility party-boy Rhy has spent almost his entire princedom avoiding becomes his own with the deaths of his parents. While most of what was childlike about Rhy has, over the course of the book been shed, it isn’t until his parents die, particularly his mother, that we really start to see him as an adult. In Emira – who’s perspective I adored – we see Rhy infantilised. When Emira found out she was pregnant, she grieved like someone had died because she knew that she would spend the rest of her life living in fear that Rhy would die. She wanted to protect him from everything to the point that she cast the boy meant to be his brother – Kell – in the role of bodyguard. She made Rhy into his party-boy self because that was safer for him than being king. And for Rhy the worst had to happen – he had to actually die – before he was able to shed the idea of himself as to be protected and become a fighter instead. It’s an identity that becomes fully realised once both his parents are gone.

I think that what made both these storylines quite so painfully real to me is that both boys had the ability to prevent the other from growing. Kell could leap in and keep Rhy from acting using magic, and Rhy at the end, ‘knew he could make him [Kell] stay, and knew he couldn’t bear to do it.

There is a sense that these characters know what they have isn’t enough, but are afraid to let it go all the same. Lila, to an extent, serves as a foil to this. She is an expert at letting go. Running is her default setting, whereas staying presents more of a challenge. For Lila, the process was the opposite. She has to learn to let people in, rather than just let them go.

Schwab’s characters all break themselves out of their cages. While, you know, dominating evil and restoring peace to all the Londons.

Not bad.

It took me a minute, but ultimately, I adored this series. Schwab’s rich prose weaves a complicated and magical world, and her characters will live in my imagination for many years to come.

As much as I always claim not to care, I’m dreading them making a sub-standard teen movie out of this one.

 

A Gathering of Shadows

Kell is one of the last magicians with the ability to travel between parallel universes, linked by the magical city of London. It has been four months since a mysterious obsidian stone fell into his possession and he met Delilah Bard. Four months since the Dane twins of White London fell, and the stone was cast with Holland’s dying body back into Black London.

Now Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila. And as Red London prepares for the Element Games – an international competition of magic – a certain pirate ship draws closer. But another London is coming back to life. The balance of magic is perilous, and for one city to flourish, another must fall…

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For the past year, whenever I’ve seen mention of Victoria Schwab or A Darker Shade of Magic – almost always in glowing reviews or rhapsodising tweets – I’ve just sort of shrugged to myself. I read it. It was fine, but I wasn’t that into it. I guess I’m just not a fantasy person, I said to myself. It’s hard to get into a book when I can’t turn off the part of my brain telling me it’s just… silly.

I was wrong.

It isn’t silly.

When I read A Gathering of Shadows I fell in love with it like Kell did with Delilah: hard, fast and with some theft involved (of my heart, obvs).

We could analyse why A Darker Shade of Magic didn’t work for me but I think it’s pointless really. It boils down to a simple statement: book, it’s wasn’t you, it was me. It’s like when Taylor Swift released Shake It Off and I thought for a couple hours I didn’t like it. I was wrong. It’s a vital part of 1989. I love that song.

Like I love A Gathering of Shadows (and A Conjuring of Light, which I am currently about half way through. I went out and bought it, like, instantly even though it wasn’t even pay day yet).

Have I apologised enough yet for my initial lack of enthusiasm? I’m SORRY, okay.

Let’s move on.

V.E Schwab’s writing – if not her name, which I mistype at least three times at every attempt – is like unwrapping a gift, but like in a game of pass the parcel there are layers and layers to peel away before you reach the (dramatic, crazy, heart attacking-inducing) centre.

The only way I can truly describe it is that I want to EAT this woman’s prose. Honestly I think it would taste like chocolate.

I know you know what I mean.

A thing about A Gathering of Shadows is that it’s a lot like The Goblet of Fire – most of the plot is essentially pointless, but it leaves the characters distracted enough for Voldemort to regain his powers while everyone else is looking the other way. Voldemort in this instance being White London (previously of evil Astrid and Athos fame) now under the control of the mysteriously alive evil Antari, Holland.

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RIP Dane siblings

Pointless but fun, and essential in setting up the events of A Conjuring of Light (which so far are CRAZY, btw).

A problem I’ve had with fantasy in the past is that the plot driven nature of most of the books comes at – in my opinion, don’t get mad at me fantasy lovers – the sacrifice of the characters. I often feel like they are stock versions of people, rather than the sort of friends I would happily invite to inhabit my imagination for a week.

Not so in Schwab’s Londons. I was so distracted by Rhy (I’m a sucker for a prince, apparently?) in the first book that I totally failed to notice how engaging Kell’s character is. He spends much of the book with his desire for adventure and independence at war with his responsibilities to his family.

Raise a hand if you can relate to that. Or, maybe don’t actually. There’s no way I could ever count them all.

On the other side of the coin there’s Rhy, who wants his brother to be happy only slightly less than he wants him to stay. One of the interesting images of the book is that of the spell binding Rhy and Kell together, the one that keeps Rhy’s heart beating. The truth Schwab writes around is that the bond was forged way before the spell came along. One boy never knew how to live without the other a long time before death was ever involved.

And Delilah Bard is… basically everything that I want to be.

The Brave adventurer.

The pirate.

The impossible.

Also she has a very utilitarian, purpose driven dress sense that I can’t help but respect.

Lila never met a challenge she wasn’t up for.

As women, we are so often unsure of ourselves, unsure of our legitimacy, if we’ve really earned our place, if we’re allowed to occupy the spaces we’re in. Not Lila. I don’t get the impression that doubting herself ever even occurred to her. As The Least Sure Girl Ever*, I find this to be hella inspiring. In my daily life I think I’m going to start asking WWDBD? What would Delilah Bard do? Though of course the only answer that that question is whatever she damn well pleases.

Altogether, I can’t recommend this book enough. The magic tournament everyone is taking part in has fight scenes that’ll make your heart pound, enemies of Red London, though distant, will keep you on edge throughout. You get to see Lila being a pirate. You’re introduced to Alucard Emery, the new love of my life I would write about at length if this weren’t far too long already.

This wasn’t so much a review as extended fangirling. But, as I’ve mentioned, I have a lot of that to catch up on.

What was your favourite part of A Gathering of Shadows?

*anecdotally proven

 

 

 

 

 

A Darker Shade of Magic

Kell is one of the last travellers – magicians with a rare ability to travel between parallel universes connected by one magical city. There’s Grey London, without magic and ruled by mad King George III. Red London – where magic is revered and where Kell was raised alongside the heir to the empire. White London – where people fight to control the remaining magic and magic fights back. And once there was Black London…

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I went into A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Shwab with expectations high. The hype for this one has been intense.

I don’t read a whole lot of fantasy. When I want to totally remove myself from the boring every day, I tend to reach for a sexy paranormal novel. While I can’t say that A Darker Shade of Magic has changed me into the avid fantasy reader so many other book bloggers are, it certainly sparked my curiosity.

The magical details were some of my favourite parts of this book. Kell has this coat which is somehow also many different coats. He can change to the style of whichever London he happens to be in simply by turning the thing inside out. Or outside in, depending on the circumstances.

I liked the brief moments in which magic had a voice. It was pure hunger and needed to consume without purpose or agenda. Its dogged and unrelenting want was intriguing to me. It made the magic – dark magic, I should say – that much more frightening; it wasn’t a person with motives you could question or a childhood worth analysing. No daddy issues could explain its need to devour all that was unlucky enough to find itself in its path. It’s frightening to face an uncomplicated evil.

The plot is sprawling and there is a lot to take in – three Londons’ worth – but Shwab navigates it in a way that is surprisingly free of info-dumping. Throughout this first in the series at least, Red London is the ‘best’ London. It has all the magic and the democracy. The complicated political situation (complete with murder-ey brother and sister king/queen team) in White London was interesting to me, as was the strange lack of magic in Grey London, both of which went largely unexplained beyond the whole it was because of Black London thing (it turned evil so they sealed it off and in doing so were also cut off from each other). Since this is the first in the series however, and there was a lot of ground to cover, my hope is that the other Londons will be explored in greater detail as the series progresses.

I liked A Darker Shade of Magic well enough, but I do wish I could have connected with the characters more. What I didn’t realise going in is that it’s written from various viewpoints, but primarily narration is shared between Kell, the magic guy, and Lila, a criminal with aspirations of piracy he accidentally pulls into his mess (and like most YA ladies, she goes along with the whole thing without asking half of the questions I would have). There was a hint of romance, but I didn’t really feel it. It manifested itself in a random kiss that to me at least, came from nowhere. The other central relationship in the book is Kell’s with his adoptive brother, Rhy.

(with all the talk concerning Rhy’s sexuality and him shoving Kell up against the wall the first scene we meet him, I will admit, I definitely misunderstood the way this relationship was going. They see each other as brothers. I was a little disappointed).

The relationship with Rhy is probably the most important in Kell’s life. Whenever there was drama involving Rhy, I felt anxiety for him and I definitely was hoping that he wouldn’t die, but overall he wasn’t in the story enough for me to really care about him. As in his relationship with Lila, Shawb told us that they cared rather than take the time to actually make me feel it.

This might not be a problem for everyone. This isn’t a short read, and as a fantasy novel it is plot, rather than character driven. It was frustrating for me, being, as I always have been, much more interested in the people catching the murderer than the way he gets caught.

Despite my reservations, I likely will continue with the series. The Neil Gaiman comparisons aren’t unfounded. Plus I really like the idea that Lila is going to become a pirate. I want to read what that looks like.

 

The Dark Days Club

London, April 1812

Lady Helen Wrexhall is set to step into Regency Society and find a husband. But this step will take her from glittering ballrooms and the bright lights of Vauxhall Gardens into a shadowy world of demonic creatures and deadly power.

Drawing her into this underworld is Lord Carlston, a man of dubious reputation and infuriating manners. He believes Helen has a destiny beyond the ballroom; a sacred duty to protect humanity. Not the usual aspirations of a young lady in her first London Season.

A delightfully dangerous journey of self-discovery and dark choices, set against a backdrop of whispered secrets, soirees and high society.

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The Dark Days Club, by Alison Goodman was such fun reading. It contains so much of what I love: a nineteenth century setting, feminism, mystery and a gentleman of the sexy-but-dangerous variety.

I found this to be a refreshing take on the whole girl-finds-out-she’s-a-demon hunter story. This was mostly because Goodman sets up her restraints early – nineteenth century ladies can’t exactly pop out to slay a demon without their guardians noticing and pronouncing them ‘ruined’ (translation: unmarriageable) – and then plays within them.

Let’s break down what I mean by this.

To start, the pace of this book is super slow, which I know might be kind of turn off for some readers. I, on the other hand, savoured each revelation as it came. Rather than just being told that Lady Helen’s normality had been pulled out from under her – as so many books do – we instead were invited to study each piece as it was dismantled.

The pace of the plot was largely set by the limitations that define Lady Helen’s life. As in most books in this particular genre, Lady Helen is introduced to her demon hunter heritage by designated eye-candy (who is also her second cousin but I’m thinking we’re not supposed to mind because nineteenth century?  Mostly I just tried to keep that aspect of it at the very back of my mind) Lord Carlston. This is not easy for him to do because 1. No decent single Regency lady would be allowed to hang out with a man unaccompanied (gasp) and 2. Helen’s family have basically disowned him because there’s this rumour that he murdered his wife which is, I will admit, bizarrely pushed under the rug (like I wish the cousin thing would be) throughout the book. I guess we’re coming back to it later in the series. All of this means that he can’t mentor her like, say, Four mentored Tris because they can only speak to each other when they are invited to the same balls.

This made for pretty frustrating reading, I won’t lie. There would be times when Helen would arrange to meet Carlston and then her uncle (who is probably even more of a villain in this book than the horde of demons Helen has to confront) would arbitrarily decide she wasn’t allowed out that day, or her aunt would announce that Helen desperately needed to be fitted for a new riding habit or something. I really appreciated these details, however, as they made Helen’s experience something of a believable one. I don’t even live in the nineteenth century, but if I was called to be a demon hunter that would cause some serious problems in my life (I’m guessing no one would pay me? I work during the day. What if there was a demon? I can’t just leave! See? Issues). I like to see that stuff reflected in fiction.

Generally speaking, Goodman’s restraint is what I admired most about this novel. It surprised me, as a twenty-first century lady, that Helen wasn’t prepared to just let go of her life as it was before she joined the Dark Days Club and became a demon hunter. Before them, the only option in front of her was to go out and find a hopefully nice, hopefully attractive (although her uncle wasn’t especially bothered about either feature) guy to marry and hopefully be sort-of passably happy with. Even though she wasn’t enthusiastic about that prospect, and had in fact actively searched for ways out of it, including going to her brother for financial help, when first presented with an alternative future, Helen holds on to the proscribed path as hard as she can. I thought this was an interesting approach to societal pressure and internalised misogyny. Even after developing super powers Helen still understands that in the eyes of society – and a little, I think, of herself – her value can only be measured in terms of who she marries. She is afraid to step outside of the box she has been living in her whole life. She is afraid to leave everybody she knows inside it.

But ultimately, she doesn’t have much choice.

There is no question – I am absolutely reading the sequel to this one.

BONUS POINTS for mentioning real events and characters like the Ratcliffe Highway murders and Beau Brummel.

Additional BONUS POINTS for turning abruptly and awkwardly sexual about halfway through. I was into it.