A Gathering of Shadows
“This is how large scale action-fantasy should be.”
A Gathering of Shadows is modern fantasy at its peak, a hybrid of epic fantasy and historical fantasy in which the created worlds are as real as the actual Victorian London one of the characters comes from.
It is equal parts court intrigue, daring pirate tale, and unusual fantasy-romance, with a strong dose of dark swords-and-sorcery influence of the sort found in the Jirel of Joiry stories and in P. C. Hodgell's Godstalker books. And it all works amazingly well together because of the creation of magically linked parallel worlds. Schwab has managed to create four separate realities, with their own political and magical frameworks, their own colors and traditions, their own schemes and needs, and to make all four of them flow into each other without compromising the separate and distinct worlds.
The book is set mostly in Red London, where the river is the source of abundant magic, the empire capitol edging close to war with the surrounding powers. Kell, a powerful magician of a kind rarely seen and considered chosen, has to balance loyalty to his brother, to the crown, and to himself.
Rhy, the prince Kell saved by giving him part of his own life last book, has to live with the sometimes dark consequences of being alive because of someone else's soul and power. And Lila, a Grey London thief cloaked in mystery—sometimes even to herself—is learning magic on her own in the wrong world and discovering things that shouldn't be possible.
Meanwhile, Red London and the kingdoms around it are preparing for a magical tournament that could shift politics if it goes wrong. Magic is sparking in Grey London where it's not supposed to be, and in White London where the despotic king and queen of the first book were dethroned, new powers have grown to fill the power vacuum.
The world-building is beautiful. Even though Red London gets the most attention, all the worlds feel fleshed out and complete, with enough detail to create clear impressions in the reader's mind and enough implication to give a lot of material for future books. All four have distinct looks and feels. They have their own stories. They have different takes on magic, but are bound together by the idea that the magic itself is the same, regardless, and that it's people who handle it differently.
But it's not just that there are four versions of the same city; there are four whole worlds we've barely started to see. In Red London's world, there are also two other empires we encounter by way of Lila, sailing as a privateer, and that implies that there are whole other lands in each of the wide, vibrant, and barely touched worlds that aren't like the ones we know. It's all handled smoothly and created cleverly, and it's both impressive to read and doesn't get in the way of the stories.
This is the second book in a series, so it's the middle of a story, and it ends on a cliffhanger (a really good one), but it starts at exactly the right place to jump on board. The characters are all introduced quickly and seamlessly, and the events of the first book are still shaking out here in the second and so are talked about and contextualized enough that the story makes perfect sense even without the previous volume—a hard thing for a second book to pull off.
The story itself is complex and interesting, involving a lot of characters that all stand out from each other and yet never eclipse the main three or four, and moves at a nice clip without sacrificing characterization or detail.
A Gathering of Shadows is an exciting, adventurous, balanced, and addicting read; it's around 500 pages but leaves you wanting more. The book is never dull, and dips in and out of the various storylines and their flashbacks, with plotting from the villains and ongoing world-building, without stopping forward momentum. There's a surety to the book that makes the scope and balance even more impressive, and A Gathering of Shadows manages to both remind the reader of the best books of the genre and have a clean new feel that is entirely its own.
This is how large scale action-fantasy should be.