Skip to main content

The tl;dr:  The Fragile Threads of Power fits nicely with the original Shades of Magic series, for both good and ill. Schwab’s characters continue to pop and feel like your closes friends, but she still struggles to utilize the full potential of her multiversal worldbuilding. Fragile Threads has great characters, new and old, but the pacing needed work and the entire book needs to be tightened. Fans will be sure to enjoy this return, but it’s not the perfect homecoming.

 

My full review: 

VE Schwab returns to the Shades of Magic universe with The Fragile Threads of Power, the first book in a new series set seven years after the original trilogy. Pretty much everything is back in Fragile Threads, including most of the (surviving) characters like Kell, Rhys, Lila, and Alucard, as well as a bevy of new characters to round out Schwab’s world.

The book also “feels” like the original trilogy, and Schwab has seamlessly returned to the world that personally made me fall in love with her books.

What keeps me coming back to this series are the characters, because I absolutely love them all. They are the perfect kinds of “noble” fantasy characters – trying to do their best but being deeply, and believably flawed, humans. As we pick up the main narrative of Fragile Threads, the main characters are still dealing with the new positions they have been thrust into. Rhys is now king of Red London, a position that hangs heavy as he deals with political unrest in his nation…as well as dealing with the stress of his life being magically linked to Kell’s. Kell is still coming to terms with his lack of Antari magic, and what he actually offers the world without it. Alucard must grapple with being consort to a king, but sharing Rhys with a queen through and arranged marriage. And Lila is still figuring out what her new Antari means for her and her potential.

I really loved how Schwab allowed her characters to grow and change with the seven year time jump, while still allowing them to feel like the characters we have come to fall in love with. I perhaps would have liked to have seen them all attain a bit more maturity in those intervening years (their moping around in the beginning, as a I discuss below, is one of the biggest drawbacks of the book), but starting this book was like returning to friends you haven’t seen in a while. Yes, things aren’t exactly how you left them, but they are still the friends you originally fell in love with. Plus, Scwhab spends a significant amount of the first half of the book jumping back in time to fill in the gaps about how we got to this point. For the core four characters that we already know this wasn’t 100% necessary (a lot of it is filler that we could have picked up through context), but for some of the new POV characters it really allowed us readers to catch up quickly.

There are two significant new POV characters in Fragile Threads, and I won’t say much about them here so you can get to meet them on your own. All I will say is that one of them is from Red London whose arc sets up much of the over-arching plot for this new series, while the other is someone who is closely tied into Holland’s presence in this new book. Collectively they contribute a lot to the really awesome stuff going on in Fragile Threads, and my only complaint is that as characters they seem a bit too similar (they are both young teenage women) that were a bit to interchangeable in the long run.

There are also quite a few new supporting characters in the book, like some clumsy villains, an actual threatening villain, and Rhy’s wife, that are all well rounded and are people that you’ll definitely want to spend more time with.

Characters have always been Swab’s strength in this series, and Fragile Threads is no different. It fits nicely in with the OG trilogy, and I think other readers will be as happy as I was to be back with them!

Of course, because Fragile Threads sits right at home with the first three books, what didn’t work in the Shades of Magic trilogy also don’t tend to work here either. The rest of this review is going to sound a bit critical, but I want to emphasize that I still really enjoyed this book and that these are just things that kept this from being a five star read for me.

I think the biggest issues with this entire series is that Schwab has yet to find a way to use her worldbuilding to its full potential. I absolutely adore the core conceit of these books – the four different Londons all operating in their own worlds is really cool…and yet Scwhab once again doesn’t really do cool things with it. There is a distinct lack of interaction between the world, in the sense where it never really feels like the existence of these four worlds really matter. You could easily tell me that the happenings of White London are just in a different continent (rather than universe) than Red London and I would believe you. In other words, Schwab could have easily told this same exact story in a single fantasy world, leaving the multiversal Londons to feel like interesting window dressings rather than a core part of the narrative. I often felt this way while reading the original trilogy, and Schwab has yet to really nail merging her plot arcs with her worldbuilding.

To ensure that I am not coming across as overly critical, of Fragile Threads here, I would say that it is better in terms of its plotting than A Gathering of Shadows, which was a fun and pretty pointless tournament arc, and probably better services its world and characters than A Conjuring of Light (which I seem to have enjoyed much better than most other readers). However, like Gathering and Conjuring, Fragile Threads can’t quite reach the sheer amazingness that was A Darker Shade of Magic. That first book in the series was a triumph in modern fantasy, and it seems that Schwab has been trying to return to that same level of quality ever since….and she just missed the mark with Fragile Threads. You can actually feel Schwab working in over-time to make the world and the plot come together, but this results in a lot of macguffins and over-explanations that were a bit reminiscent of mid-to-late Once Upon a Time.

Like with Once Upon a Time, Schwab’s biggest mistake seems that she is overly “additive” to her world, rather than having baked-in a lot of the core principles from the start of the series. We first saw this turn back in A Gathering of Shadows, where elemental magic took on primacy where it never had before. Schwab introduces several new elements in Fragile Threads that ultimately work for the plot, but you can definitely see the seams of where you sewed them into the book/world in a way that doesn’t feel quite effortless.

This problem is slightly exacerbated by the sheer length of The Fragile Threads of Power. Based on what actually happens in the book there wasn’t really a reason that it needed to be this chunky of a book. Many scenes and character actions are redundant, and the pacing suffers a bit from characters spinning in circles and lamenting things that they lamented about 100 pages ago. This particularly plagues the first 25% of the book (which is a bit sloggy, but it definitely improves!) where it just feels like Kell and Rhys endlessly moaning about their problems. If Schwab and her editors had cut down the pages a bit it would have created a more cohesive and energetic narrative. As written, the book is riddled with starts and stops that detract not only from the plot, but the characters as well.

And I think, ultimately, this is where Fragile Threads missed the mark the most. While, as I have hopefully made clear, I really enjoyed my time with this book, the characters felt too distant from each other (physically, not emotionally). Despite most of our main characters being in the same place for the duration of the book, they didn’t interact enough for my liking. I think this was a direct result of the book’s sheer length; Schwab’s wheel-spinning separated the meaningful character moments, diluting their appearances and emotional impacts. There are some really interesting scenes between characters going on here, especially between Rhy/Kell and Kell/Lila, but the amount of “nothingness” that separates them really deadened their emotional impact.

Ultimately, these are characters and a world that I very much care about, and so I am of course going to love anything Schwab writes in this universe. I was immensely satisfied (and highly appreciative) with being able to return to the world of Shades of Magic, but this wasn’t the home-run book that I was hoping for. I’m hoping that future sequels are a bit tighter and are better able to utlize the worldbuilding to its full potential (and yes, there are definitely hints of bigger and better things to come!).

 

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

Leave a Reply