Neo-Victorian Review – “Different Houses Built on the Same Foundation”: Science and Spiritualism in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic Trilogy

Miranda Butler is a PhD student at the University of California, Riverside, where she studies Victorian reading and writing practices, historical media technologies, and evolutionary discourse.

“There are four worlds,” explains the young Antari magician, Kell, in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy. “Think of them as different houses built on the same foundation. They have little in common, save for their geography, and the fact that each has a version of this city straddling this river on this island country, and in each, that city is called London.”[1]

Released by Tor Books in the U.S. and Titan Books in the U.K., the Shades of Magic series has been immensely popular since the publication of the first novel, A Darker Shade of Magic, in 2015. In 2016, the second book, A Gathering of Shadows, was released, and in February 2017, the third and final installment in the series, A Conjuring of Light, hit stores worldwide. A Conjuring of Light debuted at #6 on the New York Times bestseller list, and also ranked #11 internationally among Publishers Weekly bestsellers.[2]

The cover art for the first novel in V.E. Schwab’s trilogy, A Darker Shade of Magic, depicts Antari magician Kell stepping across parallel universes, as he travels from one London to another.

The trilogy takes place in four parallel-world versions of London in the year 1819, which are differentiated by the amount of magic in each. “Grey London,” ruled by King George III, can be understood as the “real” historical world that is mostly devoid of magic; “White London” contains magic, but is losing it so quickly that the world is starving for power; “Black London” became so overpowered by magic that it devoured itself; and “Red London” is a thriving, balanced magical empire.[3] Red London is ruled by the King and Queen of a country called Arnes rather than England, and their son, Prince Rhy.

The plot follows Kell, a stern and serious young man in Red London who was adopted by the royal family and raised as Rhy’s brother and guard, because he is an Antari—a magician with the rare gift of blood magic that allows him to travel between parallel worlds and perform unmatched feats of magic. The action of the first book begins when Kell travels to Grey London and receives a mysterious parcel from a stranger, only to have it stolen from him by nineteen-year-old Grey Londoner Lila, an insistently independent thief and aspiring swashbuckler who also reads William Blake and usually prefers to wear men’s clothes. The parcel turns out to be a dangerous piece of magic from the lost Black London, capable of catastrophically contaminating Kell’s healthy Red London world.

Thus, V.E. Schwab’s trilogy expertly interweaves science fiction and fantasy, balancing quantum physics with constructed-language spells, and historical nineteenth-century people and places with their completely fictional counterparts. Schwab’s combination of scientific and supernatural possibilities mimics the way that nineteenth-century discourse surrounding electricity influenced both biological and spiritual ideas of life and death.

A Darker Shade of Magic, as the first book in the trilogy, takes care to establish the rules of Antari blood magic, which bear striking resemblance to scientific and literary discussions of vitalism, and early experiments in galvanism.[4] As one of only two known Antari blood magicians in any London, Kell understands that magic is “…everywhere. In everything. In everyone. And while it coursed like a low and steady pulse, through the air and the earth, it beat louder in the bodies of living things.” Furthermore, his particular magical abilities are so powerful because unlike elemental magic, “Blood [is] magic made manifest.”[5] These surprisingly supernatural properties of blood recall surgeon John Abernethy’s 1814 description of the “life principle” as something separate from, and more spiritual than, the physical body. Although opposing biologists like Abernethy’s former student (and Percy Shelley’s personal physician)[6] William Lawrence “conceived of life … simply as the totality of an organism’s functions,”[7] Abernethy used technological advancements to explain vitalism. To Abernethy, life was “the effect of some “subtile [sic], mobile, invisible substance, superadded to the evident structure of muscles … as magnetism is to iron, and as electricity is to various substances with which it may be corrected.”[8] Since Mary Shelley was inspired by a conversation between Percy Shelley and Lord Byron about “the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated,”[9] it is no coincidence that A Darker Shade of Magic begins in our “Grey” London in 1819, just one year after the first edition of Frankenstein was published.

Shades of Magic author Victoria Schwab  was inspired by “traveling around London as a child and thinking that you could turn a corner and lose a hundred years.” Schwab’s mother is from southern England, she herself grew up in Nashville, and now she splits her time living in Edinburgh and Nashville.
Gregory Cowles, “Not Yet 30, This Fantasy Writer is an Old Pro,” In the New York Times Book Review online. 3 March 2017.

As the events of A Darker Shade of Magic unfold, Kell discovers that he has been tricked into transporting a magical black stone with a malevolent mind of its own from Grey London into Red London, and that Lila, despite hailing from a magic-devoid world, is capable of traveling with him. As the stone begins infecting people with a magical plague, it reveals its identity as Vitari, who “[isn’t] simply a spell. He [is] the source of all the stone’s power.”[10] Starting at a “pleasure house”[11] and multiplying rapidly through person-to-person contact across Red London, Vitari feeds on a victim’s life force, burning through his host’s body until they are nothing but a pile of ash. In this way, although the name of the villain looks like the word vital, and he is a supernatural substance “superadded” to an organism, Vitari also brings early nineteenth-century vitality debates into conversation with later Victorian studies of pathology,[12] and anxieties about venereal diseases and contagion.[13]

In the final chapters of A Darker Shade of Magic, Kell must save his brother, Rhy, from the characters who masterminded the Vitari plague. However, the extent of Rhy’s injuries prohibit Kell from healing the prince, so he must choose to bind his own life to Rhy’s instead. This leads readers into the second book of the series, A Gathering of Shadows, where the two brothers now share one vital force: Kell feels Rhy’s physical and emotional sensations, and in return, if Kell dies, Rhy must die also. Although the main plotline of the second book revolves around an international magic competition called the Essen Tasch (“Element Games”) in Red London, and Lila has a separate, action-packed plotline of her own, Rhy and Kell’s vital connection is of particular Victorian interest in A Gathering of Shadows.

Moving from the early electrical experiments of Mary Shelley’s time, to their later technological applications, Jeffrey Sconce’s Haunted Media argues that, “It was the animating powers of electricity that gave the telegraph its distinctive property of simultaneity and its unique sense of disembodied presence, allowing the device to vanquish previous barriers of space, time, and in the spiritualist imagination, even death.”[14] Although Kell, as an Antari, has always served as a literal mediator between parallel worlds by bringing messages from one London to another, his binding spell to Rhy highlights the true extent of his nineteenth-century mediumship. Kell reanimates his brother not with a spark, but by offering his own spirit and body as a tether between the worlds of the living and the dead. This also generates new communication possibilities between the two characters: Kell begins to interpret his brother’s feelings as messages,[15] which, because Rhy is not always trying to communicate verbally with his brother, can be compared to “coded” languages that require a special mediator, like a telegraph operator reading Morse, or a spirit medium reading the knocking and tapping sounds made by the departed.[16]

The third book of the Shades of Magic trilogy, A Conjuring of Light, pushes the potential evolutionary implications of harnessing “life itself,” to an extreme  comparable to the science and speculation in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). In Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, the “Vril-ya” (inhabitants of a hidden underground world), are capable of controlling a vital energy called vril. The narrator writes: “I should call [vril] electricity, except that it comprehends in its manifold branches other forces of nature, […] such as magnetism, galvanism, &c.” Vril does more than just power bodies; it can assert agency over any form of matter. Through a process “which Faraday would perhaps call ‘atmospheric magnetism,’” the Vril-ya can influence the weather, and by another process, similar to mesmerism, they can control any body or mind.[17] Developing their immense powers through the strengthening force of Natural Selection, the Vril-ya plan to someday return to the upper world and “supplant all inferior races.”[18]

Kell, Rhy, Lila, and company face a similar foe in A Conjuring of Light: Osaron, another malevolent magical force that takes control of his victims. However, unlike Vitari in A Darker Shade of Magic, which “had taken twenty, thirty, and passed by touch. This, it seemed, moved on the air itself. It had taken hundreds, maybe even thousands. And it was spreading. […] Tendrils of dark fog wrapped around the palace, blotting out the city in streaks of black.”[19] Osaron spreads through the air, water, and atmosphere, and creates puppets by invading peoples’ minds. Rather than physically possessing their bodies, he corrupts them from within, often killing those who resist in the process.[20] Although the blood of an Antari can, for a time, protect someone against Osaron’s spiritual attack, much like the anti-vaccination debates of the later nineteenth century,[21] many citizens of Red London refuse Kell’s help when he offers his blood to them, or have trouble understanding Lila when she tries to explain what is happening. Osaron’s descent upon Red London, then, engages with Darwinian anxieties of the human race struggling for survival against the sudden appearance of a mentally and physically superior enemy.

The second and third Shades of Magic novels also introduce Alucard Emery, a talented magician and ship captain, male love interest to the bisexual Prince Rhy, and new ally of Lila’s. Although author V.E. Schwab insists that it was unintentional,[22] Alucard’s name, spelled backwards, is Dracula. Alucard himself is a protagonist, but Schwab’s descriptions of Osaron, as a foreign invader who travels through the fog, can control elements like air and water, might sneak into a residence through an open window, and continually asks his victims for permission to “Let me in,”[23] suggest some homage, even if subconscious, to Stoker’s novel. Much like the final showdown of Dracula versus the Harkers, Morris, Van Helsing, et al.—whom Christopher Craft has termed “the Crew of Light”[24]—the characters in A Conjuring of Light must combine their supernatural knowledge and scientific technologies to win the battle of good versus evil.

A Conjuring of Light debuted on 21 February at #6 on the New York Times bestseller list. The image on the cover of this third and final installment in the series depicts a dark figure ominously seated on the Red London throne.

The stakes of A Conjuring of Light are catastrophically high, as Osaron threatens, in a manner comparable to Stephen Arata’s analysis of “reverse colonialism” in Dracula, to overthrow the existing order of Red London and all its civilized counterparts.[25] To stop Osaron, the characters require a magical technology that is informed not only by the vitalism of Erasmus Darwin, but the theories of his grandson Charles: an Inheritor. Since magic, in the Shades of Magic mythology, “does not follow blood,” but rather, “chooses the strong and weak as it will,” this device transfers magic by interfering “with the natural order of magical selection.”[26] The Inheritor uses the language of Victorian science to describe supernatural power, and the characters must bring the series to its thrilling conclusion by embarking across the sea to find the device, and then return to Red London for a final showdown, where they attempt to trap Osaron inside it.

Altogether, the Shades of Magic trilogy is a skillfully-written series that subtly brings Victorian scientific and spiritual discourse into a reimagined nineteenth-century world. With its dynamic characters, gripping plot, and effortlessly philosophical combination of fantasy and history, it is a rich text for the world of nineteenth-century studies, and the popular contemporary imagination.


[1] V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2015), 190.

[2] @veschwab. “Holy crap, A Conjuring of Light is now a NYT (#5), PW (#11), BN (#3) *and* Indie (#10) Bestseller. Twitter, 4 March 2017, 9:03 a.m.,

[3] Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic, 15.

[4] Particularly writings by Erasmus Darwin and experiments by Luigi Galvani. See D.L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf, “Introduction” in Frankenstein: the Original 1818 Text (Ontario: Broadview Press, 1999), 20.

[5] Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic, 117; 44.

[6] Marilyn Butler, “Introduction” in Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), xvii.

[7] Macdonald and Sherf, 18.

[8] John Abernethy, An Enquiry into the Probability and Rationality of Mr. Hunter’s Theory of Life:

Being the Subject of the First Two Anatomical Lectures Delivered Before the Royal

College of Surgeons of London, in the Year 1814 (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1821), 39.

[9] Mary Shelley, “Introduction to the 1831 edition,” in Frankenstein (Ontario: Broadview Press, 1999), 356.

[10] Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic, 377.

[11] Ibid., 260.

[12] See Janis McLarren Caldwell, Literature and Medicine in Nineteenth Century Britain: From Mary Shelley to George Eliot, Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[13] Such as the Contagious Disease Acts of 1864.

[14] Jeffrey Sconce: Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 28.

[15] V. E. Schwab, A Gathering of Shadows (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2016), 69.

[16] Sconce, 56.

[17] Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Coming Race, edited by Peter W. Sinnema (Ontario: Broadview Press, 2008), 54.

[18] Ibid., 88.

[19] V.E. Schwab, A Conjuring of Light (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2017), Kindle Edition, Loc. 1589.

[20] Compare Schwab, A Conjuring of Light, Loc. 2335, to Bram Stoker, Dracula, edited by Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997), 22.

[21] Caldwell, Literature and Medicine.

[22] @veschwab. “It is not intentional I just liked the damn name.” Twitter, 4 March 2017, 8:47 a.m.,

[23] Schwab, A Conjuring of Light, Loc. 2319.

[24] See Christopher Craft, “Kiss me with those Red Lips: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” in Dracula,   edited by Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997), 444-459.

[25] See Stephen D. Arata, “The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization” in Dracula,   edited by Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997), 462-470.

[26] Schwab, A Conjuring of Light, Loc. 2140.

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