I began this post as an ordinary review of A Conjuring of Light, the final book in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy. I realized most of my thoughts stemmed from the frustration of reading a trilogy’s conclusion, so I’ve structured this post to reflect that. If you haven’t read the Shades of Magic trilogy, you can avoid spoilers and skip to the section “The Problem of a Trilogy” for some general discussion on multi-volume stories.
I had a lengthy discussion of A Conjuring of Light over brunch with a friend. We agreed that it felt like nothing happened in its 624 pages. After that discussion, I went home, looked at the beautiful hardcovers on my shelf and realized – didn’t I say the same thing about the first book? “Nothing happened”? Certainly I thought that about the second book. A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows have little weight on their own, feeling like set-up for the final volume.
Of course, it’s neither fair nor accurate to proclaim “Nothing happens in ACoL“. What do I mean by this? Too much plotting, where the story just moves from one event to the next? I might think that would mean too much happens, but too much can end up feeling like nothing. Occasionally I read a book where it feels like the plot has been contrived just to have the characters react in a certain way. Again, though, I feel like that’s a ridiculous comment to make about a book, which has by its nature been entirely contrived by an author. But the best books feel like they’re sharing a story of something that really happened, as opposed to a ‘what if’ scenario.
I also felt like everything that happened was a precursor to get to the actual story. But even at the end of the final book, I felt like I had never arrived at the ‘actual story’. ACoL, and indeed the whole trilogy, never felt significant to me. I enjoyed the setting and characters. Yet I felt no excitement about the story line or the particular happenings they endure. I wasn’t anxious to learn how the story would conclude. I didn’t feel any suspense about how the characters or their worlds might be impacted by the events of the trilogy. I suppose when I say “nothing happened”, I mean whatever did happen was not suited to my taste. Does any of this make sense? It’s a difficult sensation to describe. Have you ever felt this way about a book?
My primary dissatisfaction with ACoL is that Schwab’s signature tricks, which felt fun and fresh in the first book, feel repetitive and exhausted in this final volume. (Even at the end of ADSoM, I found myself tiring of her tropes.) Here are some small examples that stuck with me. A scene concluded with “Someone screamed” or a variation thereupon, which I noticed at least three times by page 135. A popular quote from ADSoM (“I’m not going to die,” she said. “Not till I’ve seen it.” “Seen what?” Her smile widened. “Everything.”) never struck a chord with me. Now the recycling of the words everything and nothing certainly doesn’t have any impact (Ex. ‘It was everything and nothing’, ‘It was everywhere and nowhere’, etc.) Typing this out, I realize I may sound nitpicky. But when I’ve read three volumes of the same thing, these sort of details stick out.
From overhead, nothing. Nothing. And then he heard his sister scream. (135)
Moving beyond minor stylistics and into a plot matter, the treatment of character deaths has bored me since ADSoM. If you find yourself suddenly reading particular details about a character who previously had no significance to the story, then you can be sure that character is about to die. Also, too many times is the reader asked to mourn a character, only to have that character return to life. (My note on this was “everyone’s dead, or are they? NOPE haha!”) This especially applies to Rhy. I rolled my eyes as he died and returned in the first hundred pages. Killing off a character but not actually is a trick I think you can only pull off once in a story.
The Problem of a Trilogy
How might these thoughts apply to trilogies in general? It seems a tricky thing to balance a story across three books. Ideally, an author could craft a complete and satisfying story in each volume, while also supporting an overarching story that concludes in the third volume. The first two books wouldn’t just be fodder for the third. The trilogy as a whole would be just as gripping a single volume story. So that leaves me with two questions:
- Can a trilogy remain fresh and new while maintaining whatever characteristics caused you to fall in love with it in the first place?
- Can a trilogy or series continually build momentum, up to that pinnacle of the final volume?
Well, I’m sure it’s possible. But perhaps I have too high standards. As someone who already prefers shorter books, and certainly books contained to a single volume, I am a tough critic of multi-volume stories. I did read more series/trilogies as a kid (which I still enjoy rereading today). Yet I can only think of one multi-volume work where I can answer ‘yes’ to both of those questions – the Unwind dystology by Neal Shusterman somehow exemplifies my ideal series.
Update June 27 2017: I just found a note in my iPod that was meant for this post – “You’ve established the characters so now it’s mostly plot”. More food for thought…
Did you find A Conjuring of Light to be a satisfying conclusion? What’s your experience been with trilogies (or series, duologies, etc.)? What’s your favourite multi-volume work?