For those new to the blog, I like to do “A Writer’s Review” once I’ve read a book or series that I not only enjoyed but also walked away feeling like I’d attended a writing seminar. This is less of an actual out-of-five-stars review and more of a critical analysis focused on drawing writing lessons out of the book (or series of books in this case).
This summer, I had the pleasure of reading V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, which includes A Darker Shade of Magic, A Gathering of Shadows, and A Conjuring of Light. Since the story of this series flowed so smoothly from one book to another, it felt better to look at the series as a whole rather than every single book.
Victoria Schwab is a masterful and particularly visual writer. There are so many aspects of her story that got me thinking about my own writing, but I’m only going to pull out a few for the sake of this “review.” If any of you have other writing tips you drew from Schwab’s series, feel free to share below!
SPOILER WARNING! (I’ll try to resist including too many specific spoilers)
A Standalone with Series Potential
The first book in the Shades series, A Darker Shade of Magic is an excellent example of a standalone novel with series potential. For those who haven’t heard the phrase, a standalone with series potential is a book with a complete enough plot that it can stand on its own while still leaving enough room for a future series. It’s generally easier for agents to sell a standalone novel than one that relies too heavily on future books.
ADSOM hits all the notes of a complete, fantastic novel. We’re quickly introduced to the unique world and engaging characters, as well as those characters’ flaws and motivations. Everything that’s set up so well leads into the conflict of the story, which rises to an epic climax and satisfying closure.
The way ADSOM concludes feels like it could be the end to the entire story. Two of the main characters go out on their own and the battle seems over. But Schwab leaves plenty of open questions that lead into future books. What happen to White London without its leaders? Is this really as far as Lila’s and Kell’s relationship goes? Schwab is a master of meeting enough reader expectations that we’re satisfied, but also leaving enough to carry over into the second novel.
For me, balancing pacing becomes one of the most difficult parts of writing a novel. You want character and world development without slowing things down too much, but you also don’t want so much action that it feels like you’re writing a Michael Bay movie. If you want to see a well-paced, balanced story, read the Shades of Magic series.
Each book nicely rises and falls between action and quieter moments. Even when things feel particularly (but necessarily) slow in certain sections, Schwab jumps to another character engaging in a bit more action. Speaking of action, Schwab also excels at creating tension and conflict without blowing things up or stabbing someone. In fact, some of my favorite moments in the series were the nonviolent conflicts between characters. The tension between Rhy and Alucard, and Kell’s interventions. The conflict in A Gathering of Shadows between Kell and Maxim and Emira.
Schwab’s feel for pacing also mitigated the lulls in the novel. In A Conjuring of Light, the portion of the story that took place on the Ghost was (for the most part) the slowest part of the book, and necessarily so. However, I was just as engaged because we got to learn more about Holland and his past, which was as interesting to me as what was happening back in London.
Nearly all the characters in the Shades of Magic series have a level of depth and complexity to them that any writer should take notes on. You could write essays about why Lila dresses as a man in ADSOM, or about whether or not Rhy is truly bisexual or if he simply couldn’t love another man since Alucard broke his heart.
Since I can’t hope to cover all the complexities in this review, I want to briefly focus on a single character: Holland. (Second SPOILER WARNING) We’re introduced to Holland as one of the villains in the first book, and his complexities are only hinted at. But by the end of the third book, Holland becomes one of the heroes (if not the hero, when it comes to capturing Osaron, at least).
In a world of one-dimensional villains who only want to destroy the Avengers, take over the world, or get lots of money, (Side note: one-dimensional villains have their place, and they exist in the real world. You could even argue that Osaron and Athos and Astrid were pretty one-dimensional) it was refreshing to not only see an antagonist change, but to get a glimpse into what made him a villain in the first place.
One of the most powerful bits of dialogue in the book:
“Lila watched him. ‘I haven’t forgotten what you did.’
At that, Holland closed his eyes. ‘Neither have I.'” (ACOL 386)
Ooooooh. Good stuff. Thanks to what Schwab has set up (giving us flashbacks to Holland’s past), we feel that what he’s saying is genuine. He’s not trying to deceive Lila. He really is facing his demons.
All of this only scratches the surface of the treasure trove of great writing in the Shades of Magic series. I’d recommend it to reader and writer alike. This isn’t just a series of great fantasy books, it’s an exploration of love, family, power, and so much more. And it’s not the end! Schwab recently announced a sequel series that will take place in the same world and feature characters from the first series.
As always, thank you for reading and please feel free to continue the discussion!