I’m so very sad. You see, I loved A Darker Shade of Magic; it had everything I wanted in an adult fantasy novel: strong world-building, high-stakes and a fast pace, plus a kickass FMC who I raved about in my review. So what happened? Book #2 caught the dreaded bug: middle book syndrome. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a case this bad. I can’t quite go as far as to say it was dull, but it came pretty damn close. Especially when you consider how action-packed the first book was, this one just felt like such a side-step, and also a waste of time.
This book is really all about the characters; what they’ve been up to since the end of book #1 and how they’re doing now. Unfortunately I didn’t really give a crap.
Lila Bard, really took her time to get going. She started off well, a fledgling pirate kicking some ass and getting what she wants. Loved it. But as the story progressed she faltered massively. She felt very self-indulgent, unsure of herself and what she was doing and thinking far too much about it. As much as I appreciate a bit of depth to her character, I just ended up feeling like she suffered for it.
“She wanted to push away from the table and walk out, walk away, bread the cords that tied her to this ship and this crew and this life, and start over. Whenever she felt the weight of those bonds, she wished she could take her sharpest knife and cut them free, carve out the part of her that wanted, that cared, that warmed at the feeling of Alucard’s hand on her shoulder, Tav’s smile, Stross’s nod.
Weak, warned a voice in her head.
Run, said another.”
The Lila I loved in book #1 was assertive, confident and just so much more interesting that anyone else. Here, she’s out of her element, trying to forge a life in the world of Red London, learning the language and finding an identity. And this takes her over entirely: her confidence is knocked and she focuses so hard on fitting in that she becomes inferior to the others, both in how she sees herself and how I saw her. She perked up a lot towards the end, but for a good few hundred pages I was mad at her.
The other characters were even less interesting. I’ve never been hugely fussed about Kell and this installation didn’t do anything to change that opinion. I was initially happy to see more of Rhy, but it turns out he didn’t exactly radiate a strong personality either. And I get that he’s changed, things happened, blah blah blah, but that’s not the point. I didn’t care about him or Kell in the slightest. The only character I would now say I’m mildly intrigued by is Alucard. And probably Lila, since she did kind of redeem herself in the last 80 pages of the book.
And all this time, while I’m getting more and more annoyed at these characters, there is nothing going on plot-wise. I’m not kidding, I honestly feel like the whole novel is just a wasted 500 pages. The plot is essentially that there’s a magical tournament being held in Red London called The Element Games, while in the background a dark threat is sort of lurking in the form of [CENSORED BECAUSE OF SPOILERS BUT IF YOU READ BOOK #1 YOU CAN PROBABLY GUESS].
This threat, funnily enough, doesn’t truly reveal itself until the last second because of course it doesn’t so it doesn’t count towards the book’s plot in the slightest. And as for The Element Games?
I know I probably shouldn’t have had The Hunger Games in my head from the start, I know this. But what in the name of each of the four Londons was the point? The magical battles were mildly entertaining. That’s all, just mildly entertaining. And as the only thing in the book bearing much of a semblance to plot, not only did it wait until page 346 to actually begin, but the whole thing served no purpose but to be a “rather cool” place for Lila and Kell to reunite. That being in battle, of course. Because of course they both entered, are you even surprised? And don’t even get me started on the so-called “reasons” they both entered. Considering Kell, as Antari, isn’t allowed to enter (and what would be the point of him entering anyway?) and Lila isn’t even bloody magical, it’s a bit of a stretch to have them both compete in this prestigious tournament. Obviously Schwab had a plot hole to fill and I’m giving her points for trying, but it was like she couldn’t fill them with cement so she decided sand would have to do.
I’m not begrudging her that. Or rather, I wouldn’t if there was any real point to Lila and Kell entering the games at all. The games weren’t plot related, they didn’t advance the story in any way. They provided a backdrop for some character interactions and development, for sure, but wouldn’t it have been brilliant to keep all of those same interactions and development and also advance the story? Why didn’t we find out anything more about Kell’s mysterious past? Why didn’t we get anything but a shred of additional world-building? Why did I have to wade through 487 pages of nothing but character bullshit to get to the 21 end pages where something actually happened? I’m all for character development. Even if it’s bad and a character doesn’t go the way I want them to go, I still respect the character development. But I can’t read 487 pages of nothing but. Something needs to happen. And I’m not talking about those sly three-page chapters thrown in sporadically from the point of view of the “rising threat”. That’s not plot-related, that’s a fucking tease.
I am so incredibly disappointed. A Darker Shade of Magic was fabulous and this was just rubbish and I’m genuinely sorry. I do love V.E. Schwab, I really respect her as an author and as a person. But I can’t write a false book review and lie about my feelings towards this book. Obviously they’re only my feelings, others may feel differently, but I can’t find many positive things to say about this book. As my interest levels declined, my annoyance and (slight but very real) anger increased. And, according to this graph I decided to make, zigzagged quite randomly.
It was a severe case of middle book syndrome, but hopefully not terminal. With nothing happening in book #2, I’m assuming everything is going to happen in book #3 so I will still be reading it when it comes out next year. Despite everything A Gathering of Shadows has put me through, I really do still have high hopes for the finale.