I’ve been waiting to write this review for a while, partly because I wanted to review the Shades of Magic Trilogy together and I’ve only just read the third one. (And partly because I’m better at reading than writing reviews…) This series was my introduction to V. E. Schwab, although I’d encountered mentions of the trilogy for a while now in the fantasy world. Part of the reason I finally read them was my reading challenge for the first half of the year: to read more fantasy written by women. (In fact, I only read books written by women for the whole of the first half of 2018–and I read a good number of books!)
This is a really well written and engrossing trilogy. The worldbuilding is great, especially the initial concept: that there are four worlds with different levels of magic, all with a central city called London with a river running through it. Our London–at least Georgian-era London–is Gray London for it’s lack of magic. Red London is where magic flourishes, with people who are prosperous and happy. There is White London, where magic is burning out, whose people are desperately clinging to power and life in any way they can. And then there is Black London, sealed off from the others, where magic consumed everything. The only people who can travel between these worlds are Antari, the ones who wield blood magic, and Kell, adopted son of the rulers of Red London, is one of only two Antari in all these worlds. But Kell gets caught up in power struggles in White London, forbidden magic from Black London, and a thief from Gray London named Delilah Bard.
- The first of the trilogy is extremely strong: it could easily stand alone on its own merit, with fun characters, exciting worldbuilding, and a plot that never lets up. This is not epic fantasy that gets caught up in long plots and ages travelling. Kell travels between worlds in moments, and the whole plot takes place over only a few days. This keeps the stakes high. Kell and Lila are great fun, the world of Red London introduces more emotional stakes (especially Kell’s brother Rhy), and they face formidable enemies from White London, including the Antari Holland.
The other two take place a few months after the events of the first, but they definitely rely on the others to be a complete story. The second one in particular suffers from a cliffhanger ending that is resolved shortly into Book III. I wish that this had been changed–readers would have been excited to read more even if the second book had resolved the fate of a particular character before its end. As it stands, it feels incomplete, and the gimmick feels cheap. This is a pity, because the focus of the second book (a magical tournament) is great fun. Also fun is the introduction of a few new characters, especially the pirate captain Alucard. The role of Rhy, already the beating heart of the trilogy, is expanded to the trilogy’s benefit (and gets a romance hotter than the “central” romance–also a great touch for those wanting more LGBTQ characters in their fantasy!)
The third book suffers from the rapid resolution of the events in Book II (again, if the cliffhanger had been resolved, both books would have been stronger for it). It is also a pity that this book feels a little padded. They need a certain item but can’t use Kell’s teleportation skills to get it, so they have to travel by ship to obtain it. In some ways this makes good some of the worldbuilding from Book II (a good portion of which was spent on boats). But the “find the item that will solve our problems” didn’t fit with the style of the first two. It also felt padded in the way that more people were given POVs. One of these I really liked; it was a good way to find out more about Holland, the antagonistic Antari from White London. But I didn’t need to hear about Rhy and Kell’s parents. I don’t think they added anything to the novel, not even to the emotional impact of events.
I still really enjoyed Books II and III. I’m glad Schwab wrote them, and I enjoyed finding out more about the world(s) she created so well. But they lacked all the energy and verve of the first one, and I didn’t think all the plot elements were tied up satisfactorily in the end (though they were tied up to some degree). I think there is room for more adventures in this world–I would be interested in further stories featuring the main characters–but I definitely think it would be hard to raise the stakes after the events of Book III.
Final ratings: Book I, 5 stars. Book II, 3 stars. Book III, 3.5 stars.