A Gathering of Shadows is the sequel to Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, which I read right back at the beginning of the year and rather enjoyed. The series is set in a universe in which there are four Londons connecting four worlds, side by side: Grey London, our own in the time of Mad King George, where magic has been bled away to stop it burning the world; Red London, where magic is plentiful and the people are, by and large, prosperous; White London, a dying world full of murderers preying on whatever magic they can find; and Black London, unspeakable, utterly destroyed (or so it is assumed) by magic become conscious. When a Black London artefact found its way (impossibly) into Grey London, it’s down to Kell, one of only two magicians left who can cross the boundaries between worlds, and Lila, a cross-dressing thief, to return it before everything comes crashing down.
So Gathering picks up four months after the end of Darker (which was pretty much a self-contained story). Red London is about to hold the Element Games, a magical tournament between the magicians of three empires – a carefully choreographed political spectacle to keep the peace. Kell, who is a sort of possession of the royal family of Red London due to his rare abilities, and Rhy, the prince of Red London, are both feeling trapped by their state responsibilities and by the bond Kell created between them to keep Rhy from dying at the end of Darker. Meanwhile, Lila is on her way back to Red London having spent four months at sea in the service of the flamboyant privateer Alucard Emery.
Gathering is very definitely a Middle Book: nothing very much or very pressing actually happens – although there’s also very little that feels like it’s setting up for the next book. It should feel like Schwab is just marking time – but somehow it doesn’t.
Partly, I think, it’s because Gathering is deeply invested in its characters, and is perfectly happy to wander down random tangents in the service of developing them. In particular, it avoids the all too common tendency in fantasy for characters to fall narrowly into “good” or “evil”; instead, they manage just to be “people”, who make bad decisions or good decisions for all kinds of reasons, selfish and selfless. Lila, for example, is a killer, and largely unapologetically (one of her first acts here is to murder a man whose purse she’s stolen); the text doesn’t quite judge her for that, and she kills rarely enough that the text avoids the trap of making murder look cool. I’m well aware that Lila, actually, is something of a stock character – the insanely skilled and stubborn thief in the night who turns out to be good at everything – but she’s so much fun that I don’t care.
There’s also an incipient hint of romance here, which is a shame, because I was gunning for Schwab to ignore the usual YA swoony swoony romance thing, as seemed likely in the first book – but there is a gay relationship here which the characters don’t see as unusual, so that’s something.
Generally, I think Gathering is a broader novel than Darker, taking in several viewpoint characters so that information gets released to us in bits and bobs, at precisely the appropriate time; a clever trick which, alongside the device of the Element Games (in which some of Our Protagonists are participating, of course), gives this functionally plotless novel the illusion of pacing and tension.
One last thing that I found fascinating – the novel’s interest in masks, in double identities, in the parts that people play, an interest reflected in its focus on the material realities of Red London and especially on clothing and colour, where it picks up a brilliant steampunky vibe. I’m not sure how much there is to say here until the third book gets published, as really Gathering doesn’t quite stand on its own.
Definitely a Middle Book, then, but one that pulls off its Middle Book-ness with aplomb and skill. I think I actually enjoyed it more than its predecessor.