The Short Version: Four months have passed since the events of A Darker Shade of Magic and the world of Red London has essentially recovered. But Prince Rhy and his magician brother Kell are chafing against their newfound magical bond and Delilah Bard, taken under the wing of a charismatic pirate, is already starting to think about running again. As their lives converge once more, in time for a massive magical tournament, a fourth life – from another London altogether – sets a deadly plan in motion…
The Review: I’m squarely of two minds about this book. Let’s talk about the good parts first.
Schwab’s creation of the four magical Londons (ours, now lacking in magic, is known as Grey London and, to place it in history, King George III has just died) continues to be absolutely brilliant. It’s an incredible concept and it just seems right, somehow, that a place like London would exist across multiple worlds – even though each London is completely different, they’re all called London. If you’ve been to London, you know why this just… it just makes sense. And I was excited to see a little bit more of the world outside of Red London, both in the guests visiting the city for the Essen Tach and in Lila’s adventures on the high seas, as well as actually catch a glimpse of the other three Londons – yes, that’s right, ALL THREE. (I guess that might be a little bit of a spoiler but I just see it as a proper tease.)
And the characters are flipping fantastic. Lila is as frustrating as ever, Kell is weary and headed towards a breaking point, Rhy is maturing against all odds… and we get the benefit of some added delights, specifically in the form of Alucard Emery, pirate captain (sorry, “privateer”) on the run from a history of his own. All four are complex and complicated, not just in their wants and needs but in more specific things too, like their sexuality. I was shocked (in a good way, in an “I’m going THROUGH IT with these characters” way) to discover the connection between Alucard and Rhy – especially after the vagaries of Alucard and Lila’s relationship – and there were several moments where my inner Tumblr-geek came out and I just had to find a fainting couch because it was too hot to handle.
I’m only mostly teasing – these characters are larger-than-life, to be sure, but they’re also vividly realized to the point that they feel like friends, even after just two books. It’s delightful to see them again and to spend any amount of time with them, because Schwab has made a terrific world and populated it with people who you’d read about if they were just grocery shopping and having an ordinary day. Putting them into higher stakes situations – Lila discovering her magic out at sea, Kell and Rhy trying to navigate politics, everybody getting excited about the Red London version of the Olympics (held every three years featuring competitors from the three major powers in the… region? world?) – just makes it more exciting and hooks the reader even further.
Okay, here’s the other hand, the other mind – the not-so-good one.
This whole book is pretty much just setting up the next book in the series. I’m not just talking about a cliffhanger, although there is a doozy to be found at the end of this book, but the entire freaking novel is kind of ancillary to the larger story of the universe. We spend about half of the novel in preparation for the Essen Tach and knowing that, somehow, Lila and Kell are going to come together around it in some kind of probably awkward way – and we’re just watching them circle towards each other, inexorably but kind of slowly. We get plenty of character development in the sense of people talking to each other and learning about one another… but then we’re ripped out of Red London and dropped into White London to catch up on the aftermath of the death of the Danes. An old face reappears and while these short interludes do give us a deeper look into the nature of magic in these four worlds, they’re also all entirely positioning the plot to actually kick in – which it does, in literally the last pages of the book.
I’m all for build-up, especially when its as fun as it can be with these characters, but something about it here made everything that takes place over the first 475 pages seem like it didn’t matter. The Essen Tach feels, in the end, superfluous as do most of the interactions between the characters – because it all feels like it was maneuvering, meant to bring these people together at this moment for the Plot to then arrive and drag them along. It made me, dare I say, a little pissed. I would’ve been okay with a somewhat slight standalone adventure that brought the characters back together – even one that then dropped a massive cliffhanger at the end – and I also would’ve been okay with dispatching the backstory more quickly and foregoing this novel altogether in favor of the next one. That’s a complicated position to be in and I’m not a fan of being here, especially because there was so much I did love about the novel overall. But I can’t help feeling like I was waiting for the next adventure and that after reading this book, I’m still just waiting.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I wish I could’ve been a more generous reader with this one, but the book suffers from something all too frequent in trilogy storytelling: an opener followed by a two-parter, the first part of which is entirely setting the stage for the big showdown of the final part. This wanted to be The Empire Strikes Back but instead it’s more Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest: characters we all know and love spending time with, but a plot that spins its wheels before suddenly leaping off at a gallop right at the very end. Still, I can think of far worse ways to spend your day than wasting time in Red London.
Muse Monthly really outdid themselves with this one. Not only was there a book and tea pairing, but V.E. Schwab herself helped curate and create the box – meaning that the novel is signed and that we got some bonus goodies, like a beautiful bookmark of the London skyline and a pack of four cards showing off terrific illustrations of four of the competitors in the Essen Tach. It was a great surprise to find extra swag in the box and I felt like there was, overall, a higher level of curation that went into this one. I hope they keep it up.
OH and the tea! It’s “A Mid-Winter Night’s Dream” tea from Mr. Trombly’s Tea in California. Excepting this winter’s decision to up and disappear before February even really got started, this was a perfect choice both for the book and for fans of solid flavored teas. It’s a nice rich black tea with chocolate, peppermint, cacao bits, and red peppercorns, creating a sumptuous and surprising brew. The peppermint is faint, mostly on the nose instead of in the actual brew, and the chocolate happily doesn’t make the whole thing super gummy or sweet. I think it might be the red peppercorns that give it a little bite and keep the whole cup balanced nicely. I’m going to try to save a bit of this for next winter, to drink around a (magical?) fire…