Friday, April 20, 2018

Book Review - V.E. Schwab's A Conjuring of Light

A Conjuring of Light by V.E.Schwab
Published by: Tor Books
Publication Date: February 21st, 2017
Format: Paperback, 624 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Osaron, the oshoc, the demon made of magic that destroyed Black London escaped his prison using Holland. The Antari thought it was a chance for his world to thrive, instead it was Osaron's chance to become a God again, but not in Holland's dying London, in the vital London, in Red London. Arnes is ripe with magic and the Isle pulses with power and within minutes of his arrival Osaron has the city bowing at his feet. Those who do not submit to his insinuating call will be killed. The Isle turns black and a thick fog creeps through the streets. In the palace the competitors are celebrating the end of the Essen Tasch. Soon those competitors and their entourages will be the only people not under Osaron's spell. The priests of the London Sanctuary place wards all around the Soner Rast in an effort to keep out Osaron's influence and for the moment it is holding. But a plan needs to be formed before people get desperate. Having so many loyal supplicants Osaron abandons Holland and Kell thinks this new prisoner of the crown could work as a lure to destroy the oshoc. Their first attempt fails, Osaron showing far more interest in this new Antari then his previous Antari vessel. That interest makes Kell, Holland, and Lila realize that perhaps they are the only way to destroy him, along with a device rumored to be capable of draining and transferring magic. A device that was last seen on a floating black market, a market that might just hold the true key to defeating Osaron. While the three Antari go in search of their best hope against Osaron, the King, the Aven Essen, the Prince, the Veskans, the Faroans, and the competitors all attempt their own plans to beat Osaron. Whose plan will work? Because with these stakes failure equals death.

And we come to the end. For now. With much fanfare but without much satisfaction for this reader. The Big Bad is banished but instead of tying all the threads together to give us any kind of closure we are given a repetitive book with way too much death. Thought you might learn where Kell came from and the history of that knife with the "KL" on it? Think again and have a few competitors from the Essen Tasch die needlessly. Hoping to learn the history of Lila's false eye? Wait in vain as Schwab describes something with the exact same wording ten or more times over the course of a few chapters oh and here's Alucard's beloved sister dead on the floor of his ship. I'm not saying that this book was Red Wedding levels of death, oh, who am I kidding, I am SO saying it's Red Wedding levels of death. The thing is, this series has never shied away from death and brutality, but this all felt so needless, so out of left field. Just a few pages in with the previous Essen Tasch victor Kisimyr flaking away as she is reduced to ash had me appalled. Shock value is good, but there's a point where it's no longer shocking and I stopped bracing myself for the next death because I became numb and indifferent after Ojka, Jinnar, Calla, Anisa, Lenos, Hastra, on and on, so much death. I seriously believe now that A Gathering of Shadows was written to give us all these characters we'd come to love only to kill them off in A Conjuring of Light. I didn't back anyone to survive because of this cavalier attitude where everyone was fair game. And that's where my problem lies. Schwab doesn't give us a single beat to mourn these characters. The book is constantly pushing the narrative forward and when the survivors make it to the end they want to put everything behind them and move on, never taking the time to grieve. If the author doesn't show sympathy for her own creations how are we as readers supposed to care about their demise? It lessens the impact of the story and for me it made me not care.

So while I came to really enjoy the beginning of this series the second time around I just can not get behind A Conjuring of Light. It's not just this mass slaughter that had me disengaging from the book but the fact that it felt so different to A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows that it didn't feel a part of the overall series. In the first book we basically have two POVs, in the second we have a little more than double that, but here it's a free for all, every character ever gets their chance. All these different characters getting stories doesn't just pull focus away from our central characters, it dilutes the reader's connection to the story. Here's King Maxim, here's Queen Emira, here's a guard you've maybe heard of once before... I get that Schwab wanted to expand her universe, but this was too much too soon. Resolve what you've already started and then build off that. Don't use the conclusion of one story as a starting off point for a ton more. Yes, Schwab has built this great universe, but new people and new powers left and right seriously did not help defeat Osaron. Well, maybe Dracula's did... OK, Alucard. But here's the thing, WTF is up with Alucard!?! All of a sudden out of left field he has the ability to "see" magic!?! And EVERYONE knew about it!?! This was too convenient, too much of a deus ex machina. So Alucard could have told Lila the second he met her she was Antari because of her "magical aura" and being able to see this "aura" leads him to an artifact on the floating black market that makes all the difference in the battle against Osaron!?! Really!?! I mean, REALLY!?! The LEAST Schwab could have done is started to hint at this in the previous volume, instead it was yet another WTF moment of incredulity. I really, I just can't anymore with this book.

The books ONLY saving grace amongst the din of trying to balance all these characters like plates in the air was Holland, the White London Antari. I've always felt sorry for Holland because no matter how good his intentions he always ends up being screwed. Here we get even more of his story, badly typeset by someone who thought it would look "cool" to have his flashbacks different than the rest of the book's copy. He has suffered loss after loss and still he just wants to save his home. He is willing to give up his freedom, to put a cage around his own identity if his London will thrive. This is epic stuff, showing that Holland is the true hero of the series. What's more it leads into an important discourse on freedom. So many of our characters are trapped, Kell by the crown, Rhy by his perceived inadequacies, Alucard by his family, Lila by her station, each and every person we come in contact with has a prison. Some of these prisons are of their own making, some aren't, but that feeling of being trapped is universal. They are all searching for some kind of freedom and their battle against Osaron is able to highlight their struggles both big and small. I think this, more than anything else in the series, is where I connect. Even though I don't currently live in a prison, I have cages of my own making. Obligations, some real, some I force on myself that I struggle with daily. If I could physically and psychologically remove these burdens, I just wonder, what does it feel like to be free? I can't be the only one reading this book and wondering the same thing, and that's how this book just ever so slightly redeems itself, by holding up a mirror to which the readers can actually relate.

Though Queen Emira comes a close second in redeeming this book. I am of the age when everyone I know is either on the precipice of or already has kids. As I've gotten older I've realized that many of the things that make me me is why I could never have kids. I'm not talking the time, the lack of sleep, I'm talking the worry. I seriously worry about everything. I can grind my mind to a halt with "what ifs." Queen Emira admits she never wanted children. Her affinity is with water, ice, and ice breaks. Everything breaks. When she had Rhy she became terrified with worry, thinking about what could happen. The hurt, the pain, the possible death. All the wounds that could be inflicted on her son. These paralyze her and lead her to seeming cold, remote. She is so scared she basically turns herself into stone. The ice queen, hardening her heart because she feels too much. This would be me. I would never sleep, I would never rest, I would be there listening to every little breath my child took just to make sure nothing was wrong. I bought a baby monitor for my cat when he was sick, that's how stressed I get. Like freedom, this was another hard truth that was almost lost in the muddle of multiple character arcs and magical spells. While we readers love to read about things that can't happen and worlds that don't exist unless a book is grounded in something real then you can not emotionally invest, you can not just connect. So while my issues with this book are many and various, Schwab was able, in the quieter moments, to get at something true, and while I don't want to think about how I impose such walls around myself I have to acknowledge, like Emira, that they are there before I can hope to at the very least understand them before I can try to break them down.


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