My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
Let’s start with the good stuff. The idea of multiple parallel Londons accessible through interdimensional gates is fun (but why have this idea if you’re not going to do anything with it? Why bring up the madness of George III and the intrigue of late 18th-century British politics when they have nothing to do with where this book goes?). The concept for magic is interesting (though why does it lead to such awkward moments like Kell controlling a bunch of soldiers who don’t react at all to being turned into a human wall? Why is it so unclear about what can and can’t be done with magic?). The short chapters make it readable. I am happy to find out that everyone has figured out Dan Brown’s secret: that, as long as you write short chapters that end with the introduction of new information, people will feel compelled to keep reading. The characters have clear motivations for everything that they do.
And actually, that’s a good place to start with why I don’t think this holds up. Schwab has clearly heard of “show, don’t tell.” The problem is, her showing feels like telling, isn’t all that different than telling. We know that Kell doesn’t feel at home as a member of the royal family because the narrator tells us that’s how he feels. When Holland is saying that Kell isn’t battle-tested enough to face him, I realized, with some shock, that the last few hundred pages had given me no idea whatsoever of how many conflicts Kell had actually been in.
I honestly feel bad penalizing the novel for the lack of depth, as it works bravely to hide it, but…all of it just felt paper-thin. Kell doesn’t think about his decade-long stay at a magic school once until he needs to transport someone to that magic school. We know Rhy cares about Kell because Rhy has a conversation where Rhy tells Kell he cares about him. It feels like there’s exactly enough background detail to cover everyone’s motivations, and absolutely nothing more, which makes the background detail feel convenient and insubstantial rather than organic and convincing. I was reminded, reading this, why so many fantasy novels surpass 800 pages. You need to put a lot of stuff in to create a convincing world. This one doesn’t quite convince.
Even forgiving the weird stuff, like someone from the 1700s having the same romantic visions of pirates as we do (to say you “want to be a pirate” in the late 1700s is like someone from our time saying, “I’d love to rob convenience stores”), the world here just feels dead and predetermined to me. There’s a half-thought-out ecological narrative around White and Red London, and characters like the innkeeper in Grey London who seem like they’ve been developed, but we never see evidence of it…I might need to give this book a second look, and I certainly haven’t given a sufficiently thorough criticism of it here, but it all feels weirdly insubstantial. It does read quickly, though.
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