Review: A GATHERING OF SHADOWS by V.E. Schwab

I’ve been struggling with how to write my review for V.E. Schwab’s A Gathering of Shadowsthe sequel to last year’s amazing new fantasy A Darker Shade of MagicThough I read it a while ago, it’s one of those books that kind of defies writing an articulate review, since all I really felt capable of doing after reading it was make dolphin noises.

Actually, if dolphin noises and this Dancing Hiddleston are enough for you, that’s really the most apt review for this book.

For everyone else who needs actual words…I’ll do my best.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Four months have passed since the shadow stone fell into Kell’s possession. Four months since his path crossed with Delilah Bard. Four months since Rhy was wounded and the Dane twins fell, and the stone was cast with Holland’s dying body through the rift, and into Black London.

In many ways, things have almost returned to normal, though Rhy is more sober, and Kell is now plagued by his guilt. Restless, and having given up smuggling, Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila, who disappeared from the docks like she always meant to do. As Red London finalizes preparations for the Element Games—an extravagant international competition of magic, meant to entertain and keep healthy the ties between neighboring countries—a certain pirate ship draws closer, carrying old friends back into port.

But while Red London is caught up in the pageantry and thrills of the Games, another London is coming back to life, and those who were thought to be forever gone have returned. After all, a shadow that was gone in the night reappears in the morning, and so it seems Black London has risen again—meaning that another London must fall.

My Thoughts:

A Gathering of Shadows is a different beast from its predecessor, A Darker Shade of Magic. While the first book in V.E. Schwab’s excellent fantasy series devoted itself largely to establishing the rules of its multiple (and occasionally magical) Londons, introducing its characters, and then throwing them all into tumultuous conflict, the second takes its time luxuriating in the world so meticulously crafted in the first book. It is lighter on conflict, heavier on character development, and chock full of fun. Which may seem an odd thing to say about the sequel to a story that started with so much darkness, but just trust me. Or better yet, trust V.E. Schwab, whose gift for beautiful prose and attention to detail is evident on every page.

Whereas Darker Shade divided its time rather evenly between three of the four Londons, Gathering takes place primarily in Red London, where we spend most of the story swept up in the Essen Tasch (Element Games), a magical tournament pitting the best magicians of each kingdom against one another. Unlike Darker Shade, which follows Kell for the first few chapters, Gathering opens with Lila Bard, whom we last saw dropping anchor in a world that is not her own. We quickly learn that Lila has spent the past several months acquainting herself with the magic and customs of Red London, and has made a place for herself aboard a grand ship, the Night Spire, and endeared herself to its captain, Alucard Emery.

Through Alucard (a delightful and charismatic addition to the cast of characters), Lila learns of the Essen Tasch, and in true Delilah Bard fashion, decides she must enter. Only a few obstacles stand in her way:

  1. The competitors have already been chosen, and she is not among them
  2. Her opponents have been training in magic their entire lives
  3. Lila has never been trained in magic at all

Of course, for a cross-dressing piracy-aspiring thief like Delilah Bard, these are not actually obstacles at all, but merely challenges to overcome. And if we’ve learned anything about Lila in Darker Shade, it’s that she loves a good challenge.

Fortunately for her, Alucard Emery is no stranger to either magic or the courtly customs of Red London. Less fortunately for her, he is also competing in the Essen Tasch. And he intends to win.

And then, of course, there is Kell, whose dreams have been haunted by images of Lila ever since they said farewell. Kell’s relationship with his foster brother, Prince Rhy, changed dramatically at the end of Darker Shade, and as a result, in Gathering we find him still adjusting to both his responsibility to his brother and his role in court.

Without the need to set up the rules of the world anymore, there is more room to explore the people within it. As the Essen Tasch gets underway, we see Kell and Lila, and magic itself, in a way we haven’t ever seen them before. With the delightful and thrilling setting of the competition acting as a backdrop, Gathering delves deeper into its two lead characters, and takes its time in bringing them back together, making the reader yearn for their eventual and inevitable reintroduction. Rhy plays a larger role this time around, as he struggles to come to terms to what happened to him in the previous book while striving to be the prince, son, and brother his family expects, and Alucard brings a refreshing wit and edge to the story, throwing a wrench into the inner workings of all three main characters.

And then beneath, in notes so sparse it’s easy to forget they’re there, lies the menace of Black London. While readers relax into the spectacle of the Essen Tasch, and the interactions of Gathering’s colorful cast of characters, both old and new, Black London simmers underneath, reminding us that this is, indeed, a V.E. Schwab book, where nothing can ever stay light and happy for long.

As Gathering reaches its boiling point, readers may start to panic, wondering how the story can possibly wrap up in the number of pages left. And, well…it doesn’t. As most early readers have noted, Gathering ends on a whopper of a cliffhanger, and even if you’re prepared for not everything to resolve in this book (this is, after all, a trilogy), it’s a shock to hit that last page and abruptly realize there is no more. But just because it doesn’t have a neat and tidy ending doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to love in this book. From the deeper exploration of the characters to the thrill of the Essen Tasch to the quiet ramping up of Black London, A Gathering of Shadows adds layers and richness to all the things I loved about A Darker Shade of Magic, then throws in a few more for good measure. If you enjoy exquisitely imagined and beautifully written dark historical fantasy, I highly recommend this lush, confident, and wholly immersive series.

STAR WARS: The Spoilers Awaken

Guys, I tried. I did. I tried to write a review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens without posting spoilers, because posting spoilers on the Internet is the path to the Dark Side. I thought I could be vague (“There’s a thing that happens and it’s amazing!”) and still get most of my pertinent feels across.

But…I can’t. I thought I could, but I can’t.

So if you haven’t seen The Force Awakens yet, please — and I really can’t emphasize this enough, because this is a movie that deserves to be viewed completely unspoiled* — STOP. READING. This is not the spoiler-free review you’re looking for.

*I don’t care if you think you don’t mind spoilers, just this once, you should care.

Okay, so if you’re reading this, you’ve already seen the movie, right? RIGHT?

Don’t you lie to me.

*looks around* So now there shouldn’t be anybody left that hasn’t seen Episode VII. If you haven’t seen it and you keep reading, that’s not my fault. Your fault. Not my fault. Got it? Cool.

*clears throat*

STAR WARS, GUYS, I CANNOT EVEN, CAN YOU EVEN? NO? GOOD BECAUSE I CANNOT EITHER.

Seriously, despite being One of Those People who teared up at every single trailer (how could you not at “Chewie, we’re home”?), and despite being an unapologetic Fan of J.J. Abrams (say what you will about the endings of LOST and Alias or Star Trek Into Darkness; the man knows how to begin things), I was not prepared for how much I loved The Force Awakens. I was ready to love the characters from the Original Trilogy, but I’d figured the others would require a warming period. After all, I’ve loved the Original Trilogy my entire life. I have three decades worth of emotional investment in these characters. How could the new blood possibly measure up?

Oh, how gloriously wrong I was.

So let’s take them one at a time, in the order they are introduced, shall we?

Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac)

I was surprised that Poe is the first major character we meet. Based on the trailers, I thought it would be Rey, or possibly Finn. I also didn’t expect to have all that many feelings about him. But in just a few minutes of screen time, I was solidly Team Poe. His first line when he comes face to, er, mask with Kylo Ren endeared him to me forever. (“Do I talk first or you talk first? I talk first?”) Everything about Poe Dameron was utter perfection, from his clear affection for BB-8 (another surprise! I’d been all prepared for the Rey-BB-8 buddy show, but much as R2’s loyalty was to Luke, BB-8’s metal heart belongs to Poe Dameron) to his affable swagger when he teams up with Finn (“I can fly anything”) to his triumphant return later in the movie and his elated hug with Finn when they realize the other is still alive.

Let’s just dwell on that hug for a second. Poe and Finn had met exactly once, and while Finn latching on to Poe as his BFF is semi-understandable since Finn was a brainwashed Stormtrooper and had exactly zero friends, Poe is a charismatic guy with, presumably, other people he cares about, and who care about him. (Granted, probably a lot of them died in that opening scene, but hopefully not all of them.) And yet he is so elated to see Finn alive. It warmed my heart to see him care so genuinely and deeply about poor displaced Finn, and I am now significantly hopeful that a good chunk of Episode VIII will include The Broscapades of Finn and Poe.

BB-8

First, let’s just get out of the way how utterly adorable the bond between BB-8 and Poe is. When Leia entrusted R2-D2 with her message for Obi-Wan in A New Hope, she was all business. There was no affection between her and the droid (C-3P0 didn’t even really know who Leia was, other than that she was a figure “of some importance”), and it wasn’t until R2 delivered his message to Obi-Wan and Luke that we really saw an emotional bond begin to form. But The Force Awakens puts the human-droid bond front and center, with Poe literally tearing up as he gives vital information to BB-8 and tells him to get as far away as possible, then promises, “I will find you.” (Dangit, now I’m getting emotional about Poe again, and I’m supposed to be talking about BB-8.) But I thought this was an excellent way to get the audience immediately invested in this new droid (I can’t have been the only one highly skeptical about a new cutesy addition to the Star Wars-verse, right?), since if Poe Dameron cares so deeply about him, and Poe Dameron is so clearly awesome, then surely I should care about him too.

And it didn’t take long for BB-8 to establish himself as worthy of that emotional investment. From the delightful physical gags (how a bike helmet on a beach ball managed to give a thumbs up was one of the funniest visuals of the movie) to his sassy personality (sure, we can’t understand him, but Rey can, and watching her react was enough), BB-8 quickly proved that not only did he deserve his place beside R2 and C-3P0 as one of the most beloved droids in Star Wars, but he might…actually…be my new favorite?

Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)

I am so excited about Kylo Ren, guys. Until now, Star Wars has given us a very clear line between the Light and Dark sides of the Force. Even Luke and Anakin/Vader, the only truly conflicted characters, tended to not straddle the line so much as pole-vault across it when it served their purpose. But Kylo! He is something we haven’t seen before. A character who actively chose the Dark Side but is tempted by the Light. A character estranged from his parents (no one was really surprised to find that Kylo Ren — formerly one Ben Solo — was Han and Leia’s son, right?), pressured by his father to turn away from what he knows and give into temptation — but in the opposite way of how we’ve seen this play out before.

Kylo Ren is like a film negative of Luke Skywalker, and I love it. Such possibilities for future installments! Will Kylo give into his temptation to join the good guys? What was it that pushed him to join the Dark Side in the first place, since his full heart clearly wasn’t in it? (Obviously he has some anger issues, but that can’t be the whole story, can it?)

I know now is where I should talk about That Major Thing He Does, but I’m not ready for that. I’ll get to it in a bit. Just as soon as I talk about —

Finn (John Boyega)

I’d like to thank J.J. Abrams, along with whoever else was responsible for casting, for bringing John Boyega into the Star Wars-verse. From surprising fans at Star Wars screenings to freaking out on his first viewing of the Force Awakens trailer to just being genuinely classy in the face of some genuinely unclassy comments about his casting, he’s just been a real treat to watch and I’m glad that Star Wars brought him onto my radar.

But I’m not here to talk about John Boyega. I’m here to talk about Finn. Finn.

Admittedly, we don’t get a ton of backstory on Finn (which is nothing new for Star Wars; the Original Trilogy gave us practically nothing on the Main Trio), but what we do know — taken from his family at an age so young he doesn’t remember them, trained as a soldier, treated as a slave, “conditioned” not to have any thoughts of his own — makes him even more interesting. When we see the Stormtroopers burning Poe’s village to the ground, Finn is the only one hesitates to kill the innocent civilians. Finn is the only one visibly shaken by the death of his comrades (perhaps even friends?). Finn is also the only Stormtrooper in the entire series to willingly remove his helmet (correct me if I’m wrong, as I’ve purposely blocked out the prequels, but in the Original Trilogy, the only helmets we see removed are worn by Luke and Han).

What is it about him that allows him to break free? Could it be…a capacity for the Force? Or is Finn just an innately good person, and that goodness couldn’t be wiped out of him, no matter how much First Order conditioning he received? Surely his line when he rescues Poe — “It’s the right thing to do” — shows his strength of character (where did he even learn the difference between right and wrong during his conditioning?). Despite Finn’s struggle throughout the movie between taking care of himself and taking care of his new friends, nothing highlights that inner strength more than at the end when he takes up Luke’s lightsaber(!) and battles (!) Kylo Ren(!!!).

Compared to how flashy and over-choreographed the prequel lightsaber battles were, can I just tell you how much I loved how raw the fights were in The Force Awakens? You have Kylo — a partially trained Jedi with a serious temper problem — and Finn, a former Stormtrooper who knows his way around a blaster, but has never trained with any other form of weaponry, just flailing madly at each other. It’s not polished, it’s not pretty, but it is amazing. Never before have any of the other Star Wars movies ever driven home the pure brutality of these weapons, but in this fight we have sizzling snow and smoldering garments and burned flesh. Even when Vader was lopping off Luke’s hand in Empire, it was all very clean and precise, but this fight was messy. And so when Finn loses — Finn loses — it hurts. It hurts him, and it hurts us, because we saw how much effort that battle took, how scared he was, how far out of his league, but how he kept fighting a losing battle because it was the right thing to do.

I need a minute. I’m awash in Finn feels and my screen is suddenly blurry. And I need my full wits about me to talk about —

Rey (Daisy Ridley)

Can we just…take a moment and bask in the glory that is Rey?

I was not prepared for how much I loved Rey (and how much I loved Daisy Ridley as Rey. It reminded me of the feeling I had watching Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, another character I was not prepared to love half as much as I did/do, and how even though I’d only seen her in the one movie, I was now willing to follow her to every movie ever). Every time I thought, okay, this is it, I love her as much as I possibly can, the movie would give us something else to love. The entire sequence where she meets Finn, from her knocking out her assailants before Finn can “rescue” her, to her constant “I know how to run without you holding my hand!” protests, to her reluctance to steal the “garbage” Millennium Falcon, followed by her surprise!ability to pilot the Millennium Falcon, was pure gold.

And then I could take you through all the best Rey moments in the rest of the movie, but I won’t, because that’s like the entire movie? Every single scene she was in was magical. When she taught herself to use the Force on the Stormtrooper? When Luke’s lightsaber flew past Kylo into her hand? When she met Leia’s eyes and went straight into her arms without ever meeting her (IN THIS MOVIE, ANYWAY)? When it was just understood that the Falcon was hers now, and Chewie was her new co-pilot, and she found Luke and held out the lightsaber and a world of understanding passed between them?

*deep breath*

Suffice it to say that Rey is a phenomenal character to hang this new franchise on, and I can’t wait to see the rest of her journey.

The Original Trilogy Characters 

I don’t want to say I was worried about seeing Han, Leia, Chewie, C-3P0, R2-D2, and Luke again. I wasn’t. I was actually overjoyed to see them again. But I worried a bit that they’d feel shoehorned into the new story, that their inclusion would wind up feeling more sad than triumphant, that they’d feel peripheral to the main plot.

I was so wrong. I was so pleased with how the old and new wove together seamlessly. I loved that we are not dealing just with “the next generation” in terms of age, but with the literal next generation of these characters, since Kylo is Han and Leia’s offspring. Not only did they fit in this story, but this story could not have existed without them. But at the same time, the new characters were allowed to carry most of the weight. That is no small feat, and I was so, so impressed with how they pulled it off. I’ve rarely (right now, I’d say never, but I could probably think of something if I gave myself enough time to think about it) seen such a smooth passing of the torch in a franchise.

I loved the little ways they aged up the characters. Han and Leia, being human, aged more obviously, but they also gave us C-3P0’s red arm (“You probably don’t recognize me.”), and even Chewie has become a bit of a crotchety old man. I was nervous about Mark Hamill, having just seen him as The Trickster on The Flash, where he was looking markedly un-Jedi-like, but I thought he pulled off the Force Hermit look well. I do wish we’d gotten at least one line out of him, but with Han gone, I’m guessing Episode VIII will be the Luke and Rey show.

Which brings me to…

That Big Thing Kylo Does

Guys, I know, I know, I am as devastated as you are, but Han had to die. Not just because Harrison Ford has wanted him dead for 30 years, but because this is not Han’s story. It never was, really. It was always Luke’s story. Han arguably had a small arc in the original trilogy — he went from being someone who was only out to save his own skin to someone who would risk himself to save his friends — but Star Wars has never been about Han Solo. At its core, one of the central conflicts of Star Wars has always been about identity, and the struggle between who you think you are vs. who others want you to be. Han Solo has always had a firm grasp on who he is and what he wants, and that hasn’t changed throughout the entire saga.

But by killing Han Solo off — killing him at the hand of his son, so that he can complete his transition to the Dark Side — we’ve once again put that central conflict of identity front and center. Because it’s not about Han, it’s about Kylo. Who Kylo wants to be versus who Han still hopes he is. It’s that pivotal Luke Skywalker choice all over again, but flipped, and it is even more gutting than Luke’s original confrontation with Vader, because when Kylo triumphs over his father, it’s not what we want at all. For so much of this movie, we were lulled into believing that if Rey is this generation’s Luke, Kylo is Vader, but that’s not the case. They’re both Luke — one as we know him, the other as he could have been. And this choice — for Kylo to kill Han as Rey looks on, horrified — drives that parallel home.

So much of The Force Awakens was re-treading familiar ground, but Han’s death sets the story on a new path we haven’t been down before. What if Luke gave in to the emperor’s taunts and struck down his father? What if, despite the part of him that still felt pulled toward the Light Side, he chose the Dark? What if, instead of balancing on that line, he toppled over it? Could he ever climb back to the other side? Would we even want him to?

Honestly, my only beef with that entire scene — which was so, so well done — was that the writers missed an opportunity for this exchange:

Kylo: [holds out saber hilt]

Han: [taking Kylo’s hand] Your mother and I…we love you.

Kylo: [tears in his eyes] I know.

Kylo: [stabs Han]

WHY DID THIS NOT HAPPEN? I can only imagine it’s because they’re saving the “I love you”/”I know” exchange for Leia/Kylo in a future installment. Because if this franchise does not give me the Solo Family turning that iconic endearment from an expression of romantic love into one of familial love, I just don’t even understand what I’m doing here.

ETA: Also! I just want to point out the beautiful symmetry between how we meet Han in A New Hope and how he leaves in The Force Awakens. The first time we see him, after he’s finished wheeling and dealing with Obi-Wan, is when he’s confronted by Greedo, and Han — as all true Star Wars fans can attest — shoots first. It’s Han on the offensive, acting before anyone else can, motivated by a strong sense of self-preservation.

But in his last scene, his death is the direct result of Han deliberately choosing not to act. Han Solo has finally found something he cares about more than himself, and he is willing to forego that self-preservation instinct — to go as far as having a weapon placed in his hand and still not using it — if there’s a chance it might save his son. Like so much else surrounding Kylo Ren, this scene mirrors that first one, but takes it in the opposite way of what we’ve seen before. I thought it was a brilliant, moving way to say goodbye to this beloved character, and highlighted the character growth in Han that’s been happening off-screen for the past 30 years.

So there are (most of) my spoilerific thoughts on The Force Awakens! (There are more, but this post is already a dissertation.) What were your favorite parts? Who was your favorite character? I can discuss this forever, so please, if I forgot to mention something awesome, LET ME KNOW.

ETA: Rey is totally Luke’s daughter, right?

Review: WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER by Rae Carson

It’s no secret that I loved Rae Carson’s GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS trilogy, so when I heard she was beginning a new fantasy trilogy — a historical fantasy, set during the California gold rush — my fingers immediately began itching for a copy. Fortunately, I had a friend who generously offered to loan me her ARC (once she was finished reading, of course — there is generous, and then there’s just plain ridiculous), so I was able to read WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER a few months early.

And guys, I didn’t even think it was possible, but if the first book is anything to go by, I think the Gold Seer Trilogy may be even better than GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS.

I know. Take a moment.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Lee Westfall has a secret. She can sense the presence of gold in the world around her. Veins deep beneath the earth, pebbles in the river, nuggets dug up from the forest floor. The buzz of gold means warmth and life and home—until everything is ripped away by a man who wants to control her. Left with nothing, Lee disguises herself as a boy and takes to the trail across the country. Gold was discovered in California, and where else could such a magical girl find herself, find safety?

Walk on Earth a Stranger, the first book in this new trilogy, introduces—as only Rae Carson can—a strong heroine, a perilous road, a fantastical twist, and a slow-burning romance. Includes a map and author’s note on historical research.

My Thoughts:

Before I dig into my thoughts on the first book in Rae Carson’s new Gold Seer Trilogy, let’s discuss genre for a minute. While WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER is being marketed as a fantasy, and while the opening chapter firmly establishes Leah Westfall’s ability to magically sense the presence of gold, once you move past the events that set Leah off on her cross-country journey, I was surprised to find that the majority of the book reads like a straight historical. Who knows, maybe future installments in the series will play up the magic more, but going off of just this first book, it feels a bit more accurate to call WOEAS historical fiction with some magical realism elements, rather than a fantasy

That said, even though I’d been prepared for a fantasy, I was not disappointed in the slightest to find magic missing from the majority of WOEAS. Leah — who starts going by “Lee” early in the book, when she disguises herself as a boy — is an utterly compelling narrator, and Carson’s prose is simultaneously lush and gritty, masterfully evoking the visuals and sounds and smells of a late-1800s America. The staggering amount of research that must have gone into this novel is evident on every page, immersing the reader in the endlessly beautiful — yet unforgivingly harsh — American frontier.

Though the ensemble cast seems kind of sprawling at first, Carson skillfully manages to develop her characters into fully three-dimensional people after surprisingly little page time. It didn’t take long before I was rooting not just for Leah, but for the families and individuals traveling alongside her. I won’t name names, because some characters have pretty impressive arcs (and some, um, die), but suffice it to say, Leah isn’t the only one who ends the book loving these people like family.

For those of us who grew up playing the video game Oregon Trail, Leah’s journey will come with a distinct sense of nostalgia. While (spoiler alert) Leah never hunkers down for days on end to shoot squirrels, she, along with her fellow travelers, must ford rivers, maneuver covered wagons, manage sick oxen, and battle disease (although not quite as much dysentery as I remember from my Oregon Trail days). Though the wagon train’s trek to California moves agonizingly slowly, the plot never does. Carson is a master of infusing her story with moment-to-moment tension, and even when the characters were sitting still, I found myself flying through the pages.

As with Carson’s first series, [what I suspect will be] the main romantic subplot doesn’t get much exploration in this first book. While there are hints, this is a story of survival and endurance, not romance. However, as a fan of the slow burn, I thoroughly enjoyed the foundations that were so thoughtfully laid in this book, and I think that even readers who prefer a lot of swoon in their fiction will find that, while sparse, there are enough tidbits in this book to carry them through to the next one.

Overall, I found WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER to be a beautiful, vivid, and compulsively readable portrayal of life in Gold Rush-era America, with just a dash of magic. I unequivocally loved it. Whether you are a lover of fantasy or historicals or simply a good story well told, I think you’ll love it, too.

Review: FOOL’S QUEST by Robin Hobb

Oh, FitzChivalry Farseer and my Beloved Fool, how do I love thee, let me count the ways.

*looks at bookshelves*

*counts*

Apparently at least eleven books’ worth.

Wait, don’t run away! This is my favorite fantasy series — and one of my favorite series, period — of all time. Of all time. Yes, it’s hefty, but don’t worry, I’ll help you through it. And if you love richly built fantasy worlds, complex characters, strong friendships, magic, and dragons, I promise you, it’s worth the time commitment.

First, some basic orientation. Robin Hobb’s FOOL’S QUEST is clearly not a standalone, but the second installment in a new trilogy (beginning with FOOL’S ASSASSIN) that follows two other trilogies, starting with ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE, where we meet main protagonist Fitz as a young child, and ending with FOOL’S FATE, where we leave him as a grown man. Plus there are two other companion series set in the same world — the brilliant Liveship Traders trilogy (starting with SHIP OF MAGIC), and then the Rain Wilds Chronicles (which I have to admit I haven’t finished yet — I’m working on it!). The companion series are not necessary to read and understand the Fitz books, but they very much enhance the experience.

That’s fifteen books thus far set in this world. And counting.

If you’ve never read any of the books set in Robin Hobb’s Six Duchies and its surrounding lands, fifteen books is a pretty daunting number. As this is my favorite fantasy series of all time (I may have mentioned this), I personally think it’s worth the effort to read all of them (Rain Wilds Chronicles, I will conquer you), but if that’s just way too big an undertaking for you, then you *only* (heh) need to read seven books to understand the events in FOOL’S QUEST. They are:

The Assassin trilogy: ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE, ROYAL ASSASSIN, ASSASSIN’S QUEST.

The Tawny Man trilogy: FOOL’S ERRAND, GOLDEN FOOL, FOOL’S FATE.

And then the first book in the new Fitz and the Fool trilogy: FOOL’S ASSASSIN.

These books all share a protagonist — FitzChivalry Farseer — and proceed chronologically throughout his life, each book building off the events of the last. There’s really no skipping around if you want to read about Fitz — sorry — but at the same time, I cannot overemphasize how much I enjoy reading about Fitz. Like many high fantasy series-starters, the first book in each series takes a little while to really get going, but once it does, hoo boy.

(If you wanted to read the two companion series, they each stand alone, but Liveship Traders falls between the Assassin and Tawny Man trilogies, and Rain Wilds falls between Tawny Man and Fitz and the Fool.)

Try as I might, there’s really no way for me to review the fifteenth book in an ongoing series without spoilers for the preceding books, so if you haven’t read them, proceed with caution. I’ll try my best not to be too spoilery, but even the broad strokes give away some major developments of the other books in the series. So. Continue at your own risk.

With all that out of the way, let’s get to my thoughts on Fitz’s latest adventures in FOOL’S QUEST (Fitz and the Fool #2).

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Acclaimed and bestselling author Robin Hobb continues her Fitz and the Fool trilogy with this second entry, following Fool’s Assassin, ramping up the tension and the intrigue as disaster continues to strike at Fitz’s life and heart.

After nearly killing his oldest friend, the Fool, and finding his daughter stolen away by those who were once targeting the Fool, FitzChivarly Farseer is out for blood. And who better to wreak havoc than a highly trained and deadly former royal assassin? Fitz might have let his skills go fallow over his years of peace, but such things, once learned, are not so easily forgotten. And nothing is more dangerous than a man who has nothing left to lose…

My Thoughts:

I can’t tell you how excited I was when I found out Robin Hobb was writing a new series about Fitz and the Fool. While we left both characters in a pretty satisfying place at the end of FOOL’S FATE, I’d come to love these characters like family. I missed not being able to journey alongside them on their adventures. So although I had no idea what to expect as far as a conflict for a new series — the main conflict in both the Assassin and Tawny Man series is pretty handily wrapped up at the end of FOOL’S FATE — I was eager to return to the world of the Six Duchies.

Like the first books in most of Hobb’s preceding series, the initial installment in the Fitz and the Fool trilogy, FOOL’S ASSASSIN, takes its time ramping up. I very much enjoyed it — by this point in the series, my overwhelming fondness for FitzChivalry Farseer means that I’m totally cool following him through a series of quiet and mundane tasks, whether it’s managing his estate or dealing with his children (mostly because Fitz has gone through so many dark times that I’m beyond pleased that he has an estate, or children) — and this sort of slow grounding process is necessary to re-establish the reader in Fitz’s world and remind us of the events that led here — but as far as action goes, it’s not until the final act of FOOL’S ASSASSIN that we really see things take off.

Not so with FOOL’S QUEST. Again, this is pretty well expected for each of Hobb’s series: Book 1 spends its time meticulously setting up an intricate pattern of dominoes, then Book 2 blazes in and knocks them all down, leaving the reader in a mess of perfectly executed chaos. FOOL’S QUEST was no exception to this. It hits the ground running, picking up right where FOOL’S ASSASSIN leaves off, and pushes the plot forward at a determined pace, never feeling rushed, but never letting up, either. High fantasy tends to run long in pages, but while reading FOOL’S QUEST, I found myself lamenting that there were *only* 500, 400, 300 pages left to go.

You know that feeling when watching the extended edition of The Two Towers, and it ends and you simultaneously realize, “wow, that movie was three and a half hours long,” but also wish it didn’t have to end? That’s the feeling I had reading this book. Though I was aware of its heft, when I turned the last page, I wasn’t anywhere near ready for it to be over.

Unlike FOOL’S ASSASSIN, which focuses almost entirely on Fitz and his life far away from Buckkeep Castle, FOOL’S QUEST returns him to his old stomping grounds, where we finally get to catch up with beloved (and Beloved) characters of the past. The Fool is there, of course (I was surprised at how little The Fool was in the first book, given its name), just as mysterious and tragic as ever, along with Chade, Kettricken, Dutiful, Elliania, Nettle, and a host of minor characters whose inclusion made it feel like a true homecoming not just for Fitz, but for the reader. There are even some cameos from characters from the Liveships and Rain Wilds books, whom I hope we see more of as the story progresses.

Although this series of series has always tied together beautifully, to me it’s always felt kind of like a quilt, with clearly distinct pieces coming together at the edges and making up a whole. The Fitz books overlapped with Liveships, which overlapped with Rain Wilds, but they were all still their own separate entities. But in FOOL’S QUEST, for the first time, it began to feel more like a tapestry, with the threads beginning to weave over and under and through one another. It’s possible this won’t come to fruition, and that this Fitz series, like the other (brilliant) books before it, will end up more or less self-contained. But I kind of doubt it, and look forward to seeing how Hobb continues to tie this massive world and cast together.

As with every one of Hobb’s preceding books, in FOOL’S QUEST you can expect a host of fully realized, complicated characters, lush worldbuilding, achingly gorgeous prose, vivid emotion, catastrophic stakes, and thrilling action. But for me, the relationships between the characters are what shine the brightest. Fitz’s friendship with The Fool is, of course, the Catalyst on which the whole story pivots, and always has been. Watching these two characters who have been through so much together interact and trust and plead and betray and forgive is a truly beautiful, frustrating, heartbreaking, uplifting experience.

Contrasting that is Fitz’s relationships with his daughters, where he is not a Catalyst, but simply a father, with all the expectation and disappointment and responsibility that brings. Watching Fitz try to navigate fatherhood, after watching him grow up and struggle and fail and triumph, is both rewarding and agonizing. I want nothing but the best for Fitz, but both fate and his own shortcomings are constantly getting in his way. I want to take him by the shoulders and shake him and hug him, maybe at the same time, which for my money is one of the hallmarks of a truly excellent protagonist.

I could go on for ages, but suffice it to say, all of Fitz’s other relationships are similarly complex and well-drawn. Each feels like fully realized person, and the way Fitz interacts with each person he encounters is wholly authentic and honest, whether he’s fighting to the death or gently caring for a traumatized stable hand. Though the sweeping plot of FOOL’S QUEST is every bit as intriguing and suspenseful as Fitz’s quest to aid King Verity against the Red Ships Raiders, or traveling to Aslevjal island to slay a dragon, it’s these relationships and interactions that are the true meat of this series.

Ultimately, this isn’t a recommendation for this one book — if you’ve already read the preceding 7-14 books, you probably already have a pretty good idea if you want to read this one — but for this series, and every series about FitzChivalry Farseer. If you’re not sure if fantasy is your thing, or you’re hesitant about picking up the first book in a series that is so sprawling, let this be your assurance that this is a series that only gets better as it continues. It’s worth the time, it’s worth the investment. Fitz and The Fool are two of the greatest characters I’ve ever read, and as long as Robin Hobb sees fit to keep writing books about them, I’ll be the first in line to read them.

Review: A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC by V.E. Schwab

As always when I review a friend’s book, a disclaimer: I am friends with the author, V.E. Schwab. I got my hands on an early copy of A Darker Shade of Magic through trickery and intrigue (or, yanno, asking nicely). But this in no way affects my review of this book. I don’t love every book every one of my friends has written (seriously, you can ask them), and I wouldn’t recommend a friend’s book if I didn’t enjoy it.

But this book – this book – ohhhhhhh it’s divine. This one I can recommend without reservation. This one is one I’d devour even if I had never crossed paths with one V.E. Schwab. It’s been a while since I’ve attempted to read adult fantasy (and make no mistake, A Darker Shade of Magic, like V.E.’s amazing earlier release Vicious, is written for adult audiences, unlike the novels she publishes as Victoria Schwab, which are YA and Middle Grade), even though I love fantasy, simply because I haven’t been sure I had the time to devote to that sort of dense worldbuilding and sprawling narrative and tiny font.

Related: why does adult genre fiction have such tiny font? Adults are older. Our eyesight is worse. The font should be bigger.

Get off my lawn.

(Not really. Please come back.)

But anyway, with this premise, and this cover, and my epic love for Vicious, I knew I needed to get A Darker Shade of Magic into my brain, tiny font and all. And wow. Just…wow. It was worth the tiny font.

While I was really tempted to do this review all in gifs, I will do my best to make actual words.

Okay, fine, ONE gif.

Get the man a fabulous coat, and this is Kell.

There, don’t you feel better? Or is it just me? I’m fine if it’s just me.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Kell is one of the last Travelers—rare magicians who choose a parallel universe to visit.

Grey London is dirty, boring, lacks magic, ruled by mad King George. Red London is where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire. White London is ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne. People fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. Once there was Black London – but no one speaks of that now.

Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler, personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, carrying the monthly correspondences between royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell smuggles for those willing to pay for even a glimpse of a world they’ll never see. This dangerous hobby sets him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a dangerous enemy, then forces him to another world for her ‘proper adventure’.

But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive — trickier than they hoped.

My Thoughts:

As with most high fantasy, A Darker Shade of Magic starts slow and quiet, building a world that is like ours, and not like ours, brick by brick. We meet Kell, a mysterious wanderer in a fabulous coat, who travels between worlds as easily as stepping from one room to another. There is Grey London, which plays like a straight historical fiction of our world, Red London, Kell’s home, which is rich and teeming with magic, and White London, which has been all but burned up by magic and treachery. And then there is Black London, which no one travels to anymore, not even Kell.

The world of each London is established subtly but confidently, and through Kell’s eyes, the rules of each overlapping London gradually become clear and distinct. Once we’ve gained our footing in the magic of Kell’s world and have a sense of the difficulties he faces in each London, we meet Lila, a cunning thief from Grey London with a quick hand and a taste for adventure. It takes a while for all the building blocks of the story to fall into place, but there are plenty of rewards for the patient reader, from the lush details of the worlds to the charming characters to Schwab’s signature poetic prose.

Then, once Lila and Kell inevitably cross paths, the story takes off, plunging both protagonists into a London-jumping whirlpool of courtly intrigue and deception while playing up the conflict between Lila’s lack of magic and Kell’s abundance of it to maximum, satisfying effect.

What V.E. Schwab did so well in Vicious, and what she does again here, is establish each of her characters, from heroes to villains, as fully realized, fleshed-out individuals. While Lila and Kell are both brave and charismatic, they are also criminals, and while the main antagonists – the terrifying sibling rulers of White London –  are undeniably sinister, the people they use to carry out their dark deeds are in many ways conflicted and sympathetic. Blurring that line between hero and villain is a tricky game, but Schwab accomplishes it masterfully.

As I said before, the first half of the book may be a slow burn, but it’s a delicious one. Readers shouldn’t expect to plunge straight into adventure and murder and intrigue, but there is plenty to enjoy along the road to chaos. And once the book hits its stride, there are payoffs aplenty as the story builds in intensity all the way through to its twisting, bloody conclusion.

A Darker Shade of Magic will have a sequel, but this first installment ends on a perfectly satisfying note. I can’t wait to join Kell and Lila on their next London-hopping adventure, but I was utterly sated with the ending of this book. There are no cliffhangers here, only the graceful bow of one adventure while another waits in the wings, peeking around the corner.

If you’re in the mood for a refreshingly unique spin on alternate universes, magic, and devastatingly gorgeous coats – or if you just want a beautifully crafted story told in a mesmerizing, lovely, and occasionally creepy voice, then you should move A Darker Shade of Magic to the top of your list.