V.E. Schwab creates a rich and menacing world in her dark fantasy series that began with A Darker Shade of Magic. The action does not let up in the second book, A Gathering of Shadows, which opens at sea, where the wily street urchin Lila Bard has realized her dream of becoming a pirate.
This series takes place in a universe of four nested worlds, like a Russian matryoshka doll, with most of the action set in the layered Londons—Black, White, Red and Gray. Only the Antari, with their immense magical power, can pass between the worlds, beings like Red London’s Kell and his counterpart Holland, from magic-starved White London. Lila’s home world, Gray London, most resembles our own world, albeit an early nineteenth-century one, when mad King George III was on the throne.
Four months have passed since the tumultuous conclusion to the previous volume, and Red London is preparing for The Element Games, a spectacular magical contest that pits champions from three empires. Kell, the adopted son of the King of Red London and brother to its prince, Rhy Maresh, cannot compete, yet he pines to test his prowess against the other champions. So does Lila’s captain, Alucard Emery, a disgraced and dashing Red London nobleman. And in secret, so does Lila herself, whose own magical powers are increasing daily.
At the end of the first volume, Kell sends Holland and a mysterious black stone into the pits of Black London, burned to cinders by its overpowering dark magic. Holland awakens, however, in a world that is mysteriously coming back to life. He returns to White London, where he now rules as a benevolent king over a world where magic and vitality are returning. The source of this life is the evil power in the stone, and it is beginning to gnaw at the new Antari king, making demands Holland is not sure he can resist.
In the end it is Lila left alone to save two worlds: “She had heard men praying at sea, not to God, but to the world, to magic, to anything that might be listening. A higher power, a different name. Lila hadn’t believed in God for a very long time—she’d given up praying when it was clear that no one would answer—and while she was willing to admit that Magic existed, it didn’t seem to listen, or at least, it didn’t seem to care. Lila took a strange pleasure in that, because it meant the power was her own.”
Schwab, author of the adult fantasy Vicious, as well as several young-adult novels, has created a compulsively readable series that will have readers searching for news of the next installment. There’s more to wait for, too: Schwab recently announced that A Darker Shade of Magic has been optioned for development as a television series and that she is working on a script for the pilot.
Lyda Phillips is a veteran journalist who grew up in Memphis and has earned degrees from Northwestern, Columbia, and Vanderbilt universities. The author of two young-adult novels, she worked for United Press International before returning to Nashville.