Reading V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic

Reading V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic (Part 4)

We should have a theme song. I’m all about theme songs, and instead of just going through cabaret patter with you lot, we could be singing something. We’d need lyrics, though, which I haven’t written properly since college. Unless it’s a parody.

Sorry, this is very off-track, I just started thinking about theme songs and multimedia and… you know how it is.

Here is a link to the series index, for your convenience. Go there for previous entries!

Four: White Throne

I

Summary

Kell is trying to get Rhy to focus on practicing magic while the prince tries to avoid the task by replanning his birthday party. Rhy is having no luck with the magic, and cannot understand why it doesn’t come more easily to him. Kell suspects it’s because he cannot make magic happen by being charming or commanding, as magic doesn’t work like that. Kell can tell that Rhy is upset about something and also probably lying, as he’s fidgeting. He asks what Holland was doing there, and Rhy tells him he was delivering mail as always. Kell tries to set an example, telling Rhy that he’s tying too hard, but Rhy insists hat just because magic is easy for Kell doesn’t mean it is to everyone else.

Rhy asks about the other Londons, and Kell considers showing them to him via the scrying table in the room, but decides against it. Though he reckons it would make him feel less alone, he knows that people don’t like to know things they cannot use or experience for themselves, so he leaves it be. He tries to get Rhy to practice again, but he knows the trouble—the prince only wants to learn magic as a means of flirting with other people and getting them to sleep with him. Rhy doesn’t think it’s much of a problem, and tells Kell that he wants to go out; he can at least use Kell’s magic to seduce others, and he is technically looking for someone to marry after all. Kell tells him they can be done with magic lessons once Rhy contains a flame, the only element he has any inclination toward.

Rhy ignites a flame within a binding circle, then works to keep the flame going without the use of oil, which he manages when he mutters to it in Arnesian. He is so pleased with himself that he demands praise for it, but he loses focus and smudges his chalk circle, letting the fire free. Kell cuts his palm and uses Antari magic to dispel the flames. Rhy apologizes immediately; he feels responsible for the sacrifice that Kell makes in doing blood magic, and apparently once caused him a lot of pain for it. Rhy decides that he needs another drink, and wants to go to Aven Stras, a place where unsavory characters go, but the king suddenly arrives and produces a letter—meaning Kell has to go. Holland had delivered a letter, but didn’t stay to get the reply to it, meaning Kell has another trip to make to White London.

The king calls White London their “strong neighbor,” and while their correspondence with Grey London was mostly formality, the correspondence with White was more fraught; the city is beset by violence and the rulers change frequently. It turns out that the reason why Red London won’t leave White be is because it is responsible for its downturn. Long ago, Red London was the kingdom that made the choice to seal itself away, concerned over the strength of White London. Trapped between Red and Black Londons, White had to fight the plague back on its own to keep corrupted magic out. It changed the city permanently.

Rhy asks Kell to promise that he’ll come back without any trinkets this time, and Kell promises, knowing that the words are likely empty given how many times he’s promised the same and failed.

Commentary

So we’re getting a little more info on precisely what separates regular magic from Antari magic, particularly in how words use magic to bind. So for your average person in Red London, using incantations is a way to focus. Antari commands are genuine commands. There are scrying tables, which allow people to see what you’ve seen. Fantasy narratives love this particular device, though they’re often a little different in terms of function, like the Pensieve in Dumbledore’s office and Galadriel’s mirror. So obviously that’s going to come into play at some point.

Of course now we’ve got a big question in terms of what specific incident led to Rhy feeling so guilty that he freaks out whenever Kell has to use his own brand of magic. We’ve caught Rhy at a clear mid-point in his growing up, where he hasn’t quite come to terms with his reckless streak, so I’m very curious about how his development plays out. The king interrupts the two to send Kell to their “strong neighbor,” as Holland hadn’t waited for the return letter when he’d visited. There’s some more background on the relationship between Red and White London, specifically how Red abandoned White when Black London fell, and how the resulting fallout changed White London permanently.

There’s mention that White London sits “between” Red and Black London, which interesting insofar as literally physical placement is concerned. Does that mean between in a literal sense? How do we deal with spacial reasoning between the the worlds when it comes to dimensional space? Technically speaking, these realities don’t literally live side by side, so is it just how it “feels” in terms of access for Kell? I am very curious about this.

On a completely unrelated note, I was thinking about Kell’s penchant for bringing back curiosities from the other Londons and how he has to hide that from that royal family, and then I was like ‘aw, he’s like the Little Mermaid’ which… isn’t that far of a leap, if we’re being perfectly frank. But now I’m just imagining Kell singing about all his weird trinkets and the king stomping in to blow up his hidden room.

II

Summary

Kell arrives in White London and is immediately cold. Whereas the motto beneath the royal emblem in Red London is “Power in Balance. Balance in Power.” the motto in White London is quite different. Having seen what happened to Black London when magic consumed the world, White decided that magic needed to be controlled and dominated. Because it was treated that way, the magic in White London retreated, leaving people to scrabble for it. Magic was attempting to starve out White London, even quite literally—the whole city was white, leeched of all color and warmth. Kell walks along their river (called the Sijlt) and toward their large stone castle. In White London he makes sure to draw himself to his full height and exude some power rather than hide it, knowing that he cannot afford to make himself a target by seeming too large or too small. It’s easier to walk around in daytime, when the city is quiet. At night it is loud and chaotic.

The people there are as drained of color as the city is, most of them with scars and markings meant to bind magic to them. Those without brands use amulets and jewelry, and the only element that can be summoned is a corrupt version of fire. The people cannot leave White London, the river keeping them there with what little magic it has left. They live in hope that a new ruler will one day revive their world. The palace for the White London royals is actually a fortress, surrounded by statues called the Krös Mejkt, or “Stone Forest,” rumored to be a graveyard. It is ruled by twins, Astrid and Athos Dane. The guards of the fortress are controlled by the king, no longer people in their own right.

When Kell reaches the interior of the palace, he meets Holland, who asks him which ruler he assumes he will face today. Kell guesses Astrid. Holland leads him to the throne room, the only magical talisman on his person is a silver brooch. Kell has the story on that brooch, and knows of Holland’s past, when he served the ruler before the twins, a king that treated him like an ally rather than a servant. He found out what changed in the interim at the tavern in the Stone’s Throw’s place—here it is called the Scorched Bone. It turns out that when the previous king was murdered, Astrid, Athos, and Holland all tried to seize the throne. But the twins overpowered him together, and that brooch was used to bind Holland to the king. He is forced to obey Athos’s commands.

Kell is brought to meet Queen Astrid, who allows herself to appear faded, and wears a few talismans of her own. She can speak English due to a translator rune. She calls him “flower boy” and insists that he come closer to so that she can look at him. Kell tries to sidestep, but she insists, so Kells steps forward.

Commentary

Okay, so we learn a bunch about White London in this section, including the fact that it’s been centuries since Red London sealed itself off from them. So White has been fading away for ages now, to the point where the people living now do not remember any other way of life. This probably helps to explain why they refuse to flee, tying themselves to the river for that fleeting sense of warmth, that faint spark of magic; they don’t actually remember what free flowing magic feels like, and the dwindling of this power has been a consistent drain over generations.

Half of the fun with this book is a juxtapositions in color. Imagining the visual of Kell walking through this faded world in a stark black coat is really enjoyable, and a great mood setter.

The Danes are in charge of this London, which makes me wonder about how the this world developed and if it is in any way similar to our London. Their language has some Scandinavian influences, apparently, so clearly there’s a difference in who gained power and control. Also, is London really the center of this world, too? This is one of the those situations where the question of how the rest of the world has fared seems more pressing than it does for Red London. If what happened between the Londons has affected the entire planet, then I really want to know what it’s like to have had no say in this current world order. Ostensibly you are also away from the Sijlt, so you don’t even get the leftover magic feelings from having that nearby.

The influence of the rivers seems pointed, seeing as water is frequently cited as a source of life in the natural world. In this case it also serves as a source of magic, keeping water within the cycle of life. In addition, the people who live in White London have a very clear hierarchy in terms of weakness—if you have more scars it’s an indication that you’re trying to bind more magic to yourself. So not only are you less powerful, but it is completely obvious to those around you, which seems like a terrifying prospect.

We learn some background on Holland within the power structure of White London, but it’s hard to extract exactly what this all builds up to in terms of Holland’s character. Holland was well-treated by the previous ruler, but did want to seize power when the opportunity arose, which makes it seem as though he’s not the most trustworthy person. Then again, unless he had something to do with the previous king’s death, it might just have been a situation where he saw an opportunity and tried to take it. The resulting situation is deeply disturbing, with the twins having absolute power over Holland’s power and life.

Then again, though there’s a difference in the severity of method between the monarchs, there’s a similarity in the ways that Holland and Kell are treated. They are both handled like property by the crown—no amount of kindness from the king and queen of Red London can change the fact that Kell is expected to do exactly as they tell him, and that he doesn’t have much choice in the matter. They are pawns to those in power, and they are expected to do a great deal of dirty work on their behalf; Kell has to navigate a great deal of diplomatic nuance when it comes to facing royalty across the board, and he is clearly endangered by Astrid and Athos. The only marked difference is that Holland is literally incapable of refusing orders from Athos. I expect this issue to continue coming up until we get a confrontation between Kell and Rhy or the king and queen.

III

Summary

King Athos is whipping a sixteen-year-old boy named Beloc, who refused to bow when he and Astrid rode through the city. Athos had tossed a coin to the boy’s mother “for her loss” and taken her son in the night. Beloc tells the king he doesn’t fear death, but Athos isn’t planning to kill him. He plans to bind him as he did to Holland, allowing the boy to keep his mind. When the binding mark is cut, Holland appears at the doorway to tell him that Kell has arrived. Athos asks if Holland is jealous of Beloc, and assures him that no one suffers as beautifully as he does. He tells Holland they had better go to meet his sister and Kell.

Commentary

Um.

Yeah. This guy’s a piece of work.

This chapter is designed to make it clear to us in the shortest span of time possible that Athos is a horrific person, across the board. And it does its job beautifully in that regard. I am appropriately mortified. The core of his personality is lust for power, but specific personal power over individuals. He emotionally enjoys his ability to control, which makes it a little different that enjoying power for power’s sake, or enjoying power for getting what you want. This plays out in an extra creepy way with Holland, to the point where Athos seems kind of aroused toward the Antari’s suffering. He works very hard to make sure that he can always twist the knife just enough to get a reaction.

…gross.

IV

Summary

Kell tries to hand the king’s letter off smoothly, but Astrid catches him by the wrist and pulls him closer. He tries not to react against it since he knows that’s what she wants, even as giving into it means he ends up kneeling. She releases Kell and says she should keep him, as she doesn’t trust anything that doesn’t belong to her. In truth, she doesn’t trust anything at all. Athos enters and insists that Kell stay for a drink, and Kell knows it’s likely a bad idea to refuse. Athos goes to pour drinks, but calls Holland forward instead and demands that he cut himself; Kell notes that Holland has many scars, and since Antari heal faster, those cuts must have been deep. Kell interrupts, saying that he has no taste for blood and asking for something else. Athos obliges, but still insists that Holland cut himself in any case, and then cut deeper so that one goblet fills with blood. He hands that goblet to Astrid, then tells Holland to get cleaned up.

Athos pours alcohol and drinks first to show it isn’t poisoned, then hands Kell a glass while he and his sister drink the blood. Kell drinks his first glass quickly to calm his nerves, then a second. He marvels that they can keep their clothes so white, as Astrid hands him a third.

Commentary

Ack, ack ack, this is so uncomfortable to read, because this is exactly the thing I was talking about, where Kell is expected to just handle all this abuse from Astrid and Athos and there’s kind of nothing he can do about it. The whole play is an incredibly smart manipulation of Athos’s part, which is why this whole system is crap from the top down. Of course Kell is going to have what basically amounts to an anxiety attack over watching Holland be abused by someone like Athos, and of course that’s going to lead to a lot of drinking in order to try and calm down. Uuuggghh.

Now I have a question, though: if Athos has this much power over Holland, how much of Holland’s actions are his own? For example, when he’s kinda flirting with Rhy, is that him trying to enact his orders as best he can, or did Athos tell him to be flirtatious? How far does this control exert, and how much is Holland truly responsible for himself? Because that makes a difference in terms of how we view Holland and what he’s working toward.

V

Summary

Kell isn’t sure how much he ended up having to drink, but he stumbles back through the city, and decides to wander little, even knowing how dangerous it is. Even as he does it, he’s annoyed with himself for not being safer, for always courting danger. It’s getting dark now, and people are coming forward and beckoning him inside. When he finally looks up, he realizes that he’s walked to the Scorched Bone. He thinks of his promise to Rhy and tries to will himself home. Right as he’s about to cut his arm and open the portal back to Red London, someone stops him; a woman who knows he is Antari, and knows that he sometimes makes deals at the tavern. She doesn’t want anything from Kell, though—she wants him to take a letter to her family, which was divided back when Black London fell. She claims that she is the only one of her family left alive after those centuries. The only one of her family left in Red London is named Olivar, and he’s dying. She knows this because Holland brought her a letter from him, one that both she and Olivar had to pay for.

She offers to pay him, handing over a parcel (containing her payment) and the letter. Kell knows what he promised Rhy, but it is just a letter, and letters were technically exempt from the rule. He wants to unwrap the parcel as it gives him a strange feeling to hold it, but she tells him not to lest he get mugged. He looks up to refuse, but the woman is suddenly gone. Nothing for him to do any longer, Kell shoves the parcel and letter into his pocket, and creates his portal home.

Commentary

So we’ve got a common theme here—both Lila Bard and Kell express a certain level of awareness over their tendency to court danger, and they both know it’s a problem, but they don’t know how to operate any differently. And these are character traits, of course, but there’s another piece to this, which is that they are both SAD. Okay? Depression makes you do unsmart things because you’re sad all the time, and you’re trying to get out from under the sad. And I think that both of them are genuinely depressed, much more than they’d be willing to admit. They are both accustomed to being forced to endure, but that doesn’t mean they’re automatically great at it.

So the importance of Kell making this strange deal outside the Scorched Bone obviously can’t be ignored or understated. This is the special space in each word where special things go down, and that means this weird deal is important. Of course, it’s important for other reasons—the fact that we don’t see what the woman paid Kell with, the fact that this is another task that Kell seems to be completing for Holland, but we don’t know how or why, the fact that he’s bringing over another object when he promised he wouldn’t, the fact that he’s using a very technical loophole to convince himself it’s okay.

This is clearly the start of something big. Whoopsies.

Emily Asher-Perrin would like a therapist for Kell and Lila, please. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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