Published by Tor Books on February 23rd, 2016
Genres: adult, fantasy
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Four months have passed since the shadow stone fell into Kell’s possession. Four months since his path crossed with Delilah Bard. Four months since Rhy was wounded and the Dane twins fell, and the stone was cast with Holland’s dying body through the rift, and into Black London.
In many ways, things have almost returned to normal, though Rhy is more sober, and Kell is now plagued by his guilt. Restless, and having given up smuggling, Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila, who disappeared from the docks like she always meant to do. As Red London finalizes preparations for the Element Games—an extravagant international competition of magic, meant to entertain and keep healthy the ties between neighboring countries—a certain pirate ship draws closer, carrying old friends back into port.
But while Red London is caught up in the pageantry and thrills of the Games, another London is coming back to life, and those who were thought to be forever gone have returned. After all, a shadow that was gone in the night reappears in the morning, and so it seems Black London has risen again—meaning that another London must fall.
I will give Victoria Schwab credit: she sure knows how to build a captivating world full of deftly defined characters, and a creeping, sentient magic. It also doesn’t hurt that she has in her arsenal the capacity to wield a wicked sentence or two. But it’s a strange feeling when you give a book a 3 star rating, yet still feel as though you are a black sheep. I was absolutely enchanted by the first volume, but this one didn’t quite hit the same mark for me.
We pick up the story four months after the events of A Darker Shade of Magic. Lila has taken her adventuring to the high seas in her delightfully audacious quest to see “everything.” Kell and Rhy are left behind in Red London struggling with the consequences of the powerful decisions made at the end of the first book. Their storylines converge when all three are swept up in the magical international games competition being held in Red London. And still, the sinister force that took down Black London is not dead or asleep. It is, in fact, creeping ever closer to our heroes…
Schwab’s writing is fluid and full of sharp angles that still manage grace and aplomb. Her descriptions of her worlds and the building of them are truly masterful. The total immersion that one would come to expect from a fantasy novel set in multiple Londons is experienced. The characters are as skillfully and delightfully drawn as ever. Lila is still a merciless, sassy badass. Rhy is our favorite enigmatic prince, and Kell is as lovably dour.
I can’t escape the feeling, though, that I enjoyed this book mostly out of the goodwill Schwab built up from the first installment. I love these characters, I love the world(s), and I love the creepy, dark magic. But for a 500 page book, not much of actual consequence to the plot happens until the final 100ish pages. As wonderful as the worldbuilding is in capturing essence and cultivating that total immersion feeling, it was lacking in building the understanding of the politics of the realms which made it hard to buy into the consequences of what is going on in the area of international relations. The magical Olympics of sorts purport to hold high consequence for the stability of Red London’s empire, but this is never explained in any depth.
White London is also still a threat, but we are treated to only precious few interludes from the perspectives of White Londoners. There is super creepy, evil, sentient magic afoot! I would like to see more of that please (although in all fairness in looks like Book 3 is shaping up to be full of plenty of that *evil smile*)!!
Another reason I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the previous volume is the amount of time Lila and Kell spend apart! I really missed the delightful, banter-y interactions between saucy Lila and stolid Kell. And I even, blasphemy of blasphemies, found I didn’t totally ship it when they finally reunited? This is very strange for me given that I will literally ship a cactus and water. I don’t not ship it, but I didn’t particularly feel it, either. In fact, it felt tacked on, almost forced. These characters spent only a few brief, albeit intense, days together in Book 1. This is followed by a four month interlude and the vast majority of Book 2! I really want to ship it, but they seemed so fundamentally different and at odds in their brief interactions in this installment that I just couldn’t feel whatever emotional connection might be there.
I think this hits the mark on another reason that kept me from fully enjoying this book: it felt like much of the relationships were told but not shown. Relations are strained between Kell and his adoptive parents, the king and queen. When the king tells Kell that the reasons for this estranged treatment goes beyond him, and has consequences to international politics, it rings hollow because we have no established understanding of these politics. When Rhy is reunited with an old lover after three years apart, we are told their relationship was all consuming and devastating to Rhy when it ended, but the emotion of this isn’t felt it.
Still, this book is universally beloved by literally all of my Goodreads friends. I have to admit here that I’ve basically been in a very, very long reading slump that might be contributing more than its fair share to my feelings here. I have been so caught up in library school, and with dealing with some rather stressful personal business, that I’m afraid I’m just not in the right mindset to devote to any book. What I’m saying here is feel free to take all of this with a grain of salt!
Also, do be advised that there is a rather painful cliffhanger ending. I will still definitely be reading Book 3 as the evilness of that cliffhanger seems to promise a return to the torturous, creepy evil that made the first installment so compelling.
What did you think of this one? Am I just the wrongest person who ever took a left turn out of Wrongville? I’d love to hear your thoughts!