Welcome back to Reading V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic! We are on track with our stamp card (when we reach ten parts we get a free latte? I really wish the world worked like this).
This week we’re diving further into the worldbuilding and learning some very interesting stuff about the difference between the colors red and black. As they pertain to magic, that is—the difference between the colors themselves should be pretty easy to divine. Unless you’re colorblind. Anywho…
Here is a link to the series index, for your convenience. Go there for previous entries!
Two: Red Royal
Two guards, Gen and Parrish, are playing a card game that Gen wins. (They both might have been cheating the whole time.) They are Prince Rhy’s private guard, and Parrish likes the prince because he’s lenient with them and sometimes even speaks to them in common tongue instead of Royal. He also sometimes allows the guard to accompany him at a safe distance when he goes out at night with Kell, who everyone knows can protect him better than any guard could. Parrish goes to pee, and when he comes back Gen is not there, and he can hear a male voice in Rhy’s room—Holland, the foreign Antari. Holland unsettles most people and some of the guard call him “Hollow” behind his back.
Parrish ends up listening at the door. Holland speaks in a seductive tone of voice and tells the prince that he has come to offer a gift from his own king and queen for Rhy’s birthday. Rhy protests that there are laws against this, but Holland tells him that the gift comes from his own city, as his master’s instructed, so Rhy accepts. He opens the gift and asks what it’s for. Holland says it’s for strength, and the palace clocks chime and drown out the rest of their conversation. Holland exits the prince’s room and comes upon Parrish with a sigh—it is clear that he is the one who sent Gen away and he’s aggravated to find another guard there. He flips a coin to Parrish, saying that he was never there, and by the time Parrish catches it, he has forgotten that Holland came to visit the prince at all.
Aw, guards playing cards. I love that trope, especially when said guards actually get to be people instead of cardboard cutouts used to get in the protagonist’s way. It also rhymes, which I never noticed. I expect this to be the new cosplay trend, by the by, just groups of guards playing cards.
So Red London has two different languages, Royal and Arnesian (which is clearly named for the royal house Arnes). Arnesian is the common language, while Royal (English) is a special upper class language. While our London doesn’t have two distinct languages that way, this seems like a cool twist on the “received pronunciation” version of English, a specific accent which usually denoted higher classes and royalty. (There’s a lot iffiness about whether it should still be called RP, or if terms like “BBC Pronunciation” are better? But I’m not from the UK, so I suppose I have the luxury of not having a horse in that race.) We also get the term “lin” for money. The royal emblem has a chalice and a sun on it, both common symbols for regal and religious imagery, though the symbols themselves have had many meanings throughout history; chalices often stand in for the Holy Grail, but also feminine power. The sun is… you know, it’s the sun, it’s kind of everything. I wonder if we’ll get more info on that later.
Prince Rhy has “varied tastes,” which sounds bisexual (or pan) to me. It looks as though he doesn’t make much of a secret of it around the guards, but it’s also worthy of commentary, which means that there’s something about it that isn’t altogether kosher. It’s so-far unclear if this is an issue because this world has homophobia or other taboos associated, or the Red London royal family merely wants their prince to have fewer affairs and be more discrete. Rhy responds to Holland’s seductive tone by flirting in kind, which might just be a personality quirk of the prince, but also could indicate some interest there…
The reveal that Holland is “foreign” begs the question of whether he is from a different world? There are laws against these two kingdoms exchanging gifts, so it sounds like. (This also makes me wonder if Red London is under the rule of this one magical family, or if this world also has countries outside it…) He’s not from Gray London, obviously, since there’s no magic left, so… White London?
And Holland is erasing people’s memories of his visit and sending guards away after giving the prince a gift “for strength.” That doesn’t sound like trouble at all.
Kell steps into the bank of Red London. The river that runs through that magic kingdom is called the Isle, and it shines red, even at night. While people have different theories as to why, Kell knows it’s from blood. Red blood indicates magic in balance, but if the blood turns black, that is indicative of unbalanced chaotic magic. Kell has both as an Antari, hence his red blood and the black of his eye.
There is a bridge that runs over the river and to the palace called Soner Rast, made of glass, stone, and bronze. It is known that the “Beating Heart” of the city. People come from all over to study the river or lay flowers there and look on the palace. Currently, the Night Market is going. A little boy falls into Kell’s path, and he catches him by the sleeve so he doesn’t hit the ground. His mother scolds him and goes to apologize, but she sees Kell’s eye and knows instantly who he is, clearly awed and frightened. The whole crowd realizes who is among them and they go quiet and part for him. Chance at enjoying the market now disrupted, Kell heads to the palace. He shrugs off his coat, and turns it to the side that is red like the Isle and fastened with gold buttons. He steps inside.
So we’ve got the Isle, a deliberate juxtaposition to the Thames (which is famously filthy, and was even moreso at this point in time), and some worldbuilding color theory. Red is the color of magic, the color of blood, a signifier of balanced magic. Black is unbalanced magic, which is represented in the one black eye of every Antari. If Kell’s blood were to run black, it would be an indication that he’s gone… okay, I’m just going to say “dark side” for our shorthand because everyone always knows what that means. Setting us up with that knowledge means that someone’s blood is practically guaranteed to run black at some point in these books, which is obviously not unnerving in any way. Nope.
I like this Night Market, and I would like to go there and buy a bunch of masks. This was a thing I did when I was in Venice, I bought like three Venetian masks and had to stop myself from buying every mask I looked at for more than five seconds. I don’t even wear the darn things. I just like to stare at them. Also, the idea of them selling vials of Isle water reminds me of every beach gift shop ever, and how they all wanna sell you little bottles of sand. The worst kind of tourist trinket.
The big set up of this chapter is learning how the average denizen of Red London thinks of Kell, which is that he’s pretty darned special, and they’re all kind of amazed by and afraid of him. So much for trying to enjoy the local nightlife in peace.
Kell finds the royal family bickering in the courtyard over Rhy’s insistence on having a week’s worth of celebrations for his 20th birthday. Rhy points out that it makes sense since is mother is adamant on finding him a match. Rhy asks Kell to come to his aid, but Kell admits that he also thinks it’s a terrible idea—but that they should throw that party at the palace so that they can all work to keep him out of trouble. The queen and king fuss over Kell, who they worry looks unwell after his journey. Kell tells them he’s fine, and corrects himself from calling the Queen “Your Majesty” to “Mother.”
Kell sits among the royal family until he can’t keep his eyes open, then gets up to leave. Rhy follows him, and tells him that Holland left recently, which surprises Kell, as that’s different from their usual schedules. Rhy asks Kell what he’s brought back from the other world, but Kell insists nothing, so Rhy pins Kell to the wall and demands that he tells the truth; Rhy has known about Kell’s side activities for two years, when Kell admitted it to him while drinking. Rhy had asked him why he did it, if his family had not provided enough to him in their arrangement—Kell is essentially adopted by the royal family. Kell admitted to Rhy that he didn’t feel like a true member of the family, more like a possession. This resulted in Rhy punching him in the face. Rhy remembered the conversation and every time Kell comes back, he questions him about it.
This time, Rhy tells Kell that he needs to stop trading for his trinkets, reminding him that transference is treason. Kell asks if he’d tell the king and queen, and Rhy seems to answer in the negative, but still demands that Kell give up these pursuits before he has to do something about. He wants Kell to be ready to aid him when he’s the king one day and Kell wants the same. Kell heads to his rooms and bypasses his bed for his library of magic books (most of the books on magic were destroyed after the Black London purge out of fear, so his collection is rare and limited). The door to that room has markings on it that lead to different places in Red London. Kell takes more blood from the cut on his arm and traces one to a tavern called Kir Ayes—meaning the Ruby Fields—run by an old woman named Fauna. They struck a deal years back so that the room at the top of the tavern stairs was his.
This room is the one thing that is truly Kell’s and it is marked with spells so that no one can perceive it. There he keeps all of his items from the other Londons, including a book of Blake’s poetry and a special glass ball that shows a person their dreams. The only decorations on the wall are three maps, one of each standing London. Grey London is Great Britain. White London is called Makt, and the capital city is run by the Dane twins while the rest of the territory is in flux for control. Red London is called Arnes, and London was only the start of their empire. Kell marvels at the fact that he has seen each London, but knows nothing of the worlds beyond any of them, as he’s bound to his service of the crown. Kell takes out his parcel, then tends to his cuts with water and salves; the Antari magic for healing would take more out of him than it would benefit him, so he uses more traditional means. Antari also heal faster, so the cuts will heal by the next day.
There is a scar on Kell’s arm, a rune for memory, something to make him forget his life from before. He has lived in the palace since he was five, and the scar is the mark of a type of spell that Red London views as a capital offense, as it’s magic that binds a person’s body or mind. Kell thinks that the king and queen themselves might have sanctioned the spell’s use on him, however. The initials on Kell’s knife (K.L.) don’t help him to remember and are largely a mystery; the letters can be found in both English and Arnesian alphabets, and the letters were used to create the name he now goes by. He doesn’t know how he got the knife, or if he’s always had it. He only knows that his parents could not have been Antari—magic doesn’t get passed down through generations or Antari would essentially be bred for their power. No one knows what causes the birth of an Antari, but most people believe they are sacred or chosen.
Because of this, Antari are now something to be kept, and Kell fancies that he is part of the royal family’s own collection. He sets the music box playing and wonders about his past, whether his magic manifested or he always had it. Whether his family had been sad to give him up and who they were. The king and queen won’t tell him, so he has stopped asking. Whoever that child was, he doesn’t exist anymore anyway.
Okay. So this chapter is worldbuild-y and full of information, and we get a better idea of the structure of Arnes and how Kell fits into it. This quickly gets all squiffy with the queen being adamant that Kell call her “Mother”—that’s an automatic red flag for me, because someone insisting that you call them by a familiar name when it’s not your first instinct is never a good sign of love and trust and equal footing. They seem nice enough on the outside, but that part just made me eight kinds of uncomfortable.
The discussion with Rhy fills us in even more, letting us know that Kell is technically adopted by the royal family, but he does not feel like family in any sense of the word. And then I think about my vibe from earlier about Kell and Rhy having a thing going on between them, and suddenly my brain is like—
—OMG IT’S THOR AND LOKI.
I mean, I do love Thor/Loki in the MCU (the Marvel movies), and this is a direct parallel; one son is adopted but pointedly doesn’t feel like part of the family at all, and he happens to be the skinnier super-magic one. The biological son is strong and charismatic and doesn’t get why his brother feels like he doesn’t belong to the family (even though it should be really obvious). There is an expectation that the magic-son will help his less-magic brother with ruling once he ascends to the throne. There’s some chemistry going on here, on a few different levels. This is Thor and Loki. Oh no, this is going to cause problems for me, I cannot unsee it, I have feelings. Help.
We learn that Rhy doesn’t have much of a knack for magic, which Kell counts as a good thing because the rulers of White London do, and it’s apparently made them awful. We also find out that while Rhy isn’t happy with Kell’s side job, he’s pretty much a sucker for letting Kell do what he wants. At least for now. Kell is extremely forgiving of Rhy in this case, though the prince has all the power in this exchange. Kell thinks on how beloved Rhy is and why everyone adores him so much and he pretty much agrees, and that’s great and all. But Rhy doesn’t really understand why Kell feels so separate from his family and doesn’t appear to have made any effort to on that front. Hope he does in the future.
Kell has a small magic library and a magic door to a special room above a tavern that he’s hidden away from everyone. I have a question about the magic here; I know that Antari are the only people who can make these portals to other places because of their special blood, but are the marks universal? What I mean is, if another Antari makes the same mark, will they end up in Kell’s special room, or do the Antari themselves assign their own marks to things that only work for them personally? Because if it’s the former, that could cause serious trouble for Kell if, say, Holland ever found this mark. Was this answered before and I missed it?
There’s a helpful note here about how Kell hasn’t seen that far beyond the various Londons because he’s bound to the crown, and that is a super useful way to narrow the narrative scope of these stories. Because I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious about how the other Londons had developed differently alongside the rest of their worlds, but this way we can stick to a smaller scale and not get lost in an encyclopedia of background. It also gives you more room to theorize about that sort of thing, or I assume it will as time goes on.
And another helpful qualification on magic limitations in the knowledge that Kell cannot use healing magic on himself effectively because it takes more than it gives, and also that being Antari makes him kinda like Wolverine and he heals super quickly. Cool cool.
We come back to Kell’s knife and his past and the things he doesn’t know, and we learn something pretty terrifying: a spell stripped him of his memories from before he arrived at the palace, and he’s pretty sure that was the king and queen’s choice. Normally, doing this kind of magic is a huge offense that can get a person “stripped of their power,” which is a pretty freaky thing to be able to do in the first place. And obviously this begs a lot of very upsetting questions, such as: Did the royal family steal Kell from his family? Was he sold to them? Where is Kell actually from, and is it a different London?
Oh god, Kell’s not from Black London, is he?
That would suck for him.