V.E. Schwab began her Shades of Magic series with a mysterious boy who wore a peculiar coat. With a whisper of “As Travars,” Schwab took her readers on a thrilling, high-stakes journey across multiple Londons that spanned three incredible novels. A Conjuring of Light marks the end of this particular adventure. Saying goodbye to beloved characters is never easy, which is why we’re happy to bring you this interview, where Schwab gives readers just a pinch more of the magic they’re craving.
This is the second half of a two-part interview with V.E. Schwab. Check out part one here.
Reader beware: Spoilers ahead for all three books in the Shades of Magic series! There is no magic spell that lets you unspoil a book for yourself; read at your own risk.
VS: Conjuring was the first time I really had creative input. Will probably sent 15 to 20 iterations, some with minute changes and some with larger changes. I’m the one who very deliberately wanted the character on the front to be ambiguous. I wanted his face obscured because if you haven’t read Conjuring, it could be several characters. It could be Rhy, Holland, Osaron, or Kell. I loved the idea that this character on the cover would be playing multiple roles. The floating crown is probably my favorite, favorite aspect of the cover—that and the Black London map creeping in from either side.
Bookish: This book explores Holland’s past and the secrets he’s kept. Was his story always planned this way, and how has your understanding of him as a character changed or evolved during the process of writing this book?
VS: Oh, man. Holland has been my favorite character since book one, and in part that’s because I really like antiheroes. Ever since Vicious, I’ve found that I like complicated characters who do bad things for unexpected reasons. My realization while writing Vicious was that it’s not what you do, it’s why you do it. That’s really Holland in a nutshell: It’s not what he does, it’s why he does it. I knew he had a complicated backstory, but I did not know all of the details of it until about halfway through book two. So I didn’t know quite the extent to which I was going to utilize him. Honestly, his narrative arc in Conjuring is my favorite. I loved writing him; I relished it. I could’ve written a whole book about Holland, and instead I just wove his backstory through Conjuring. I knew he was going to become a more critical character over the course of the series, but I didn’t realize that he was going to shift from antagonist to protagonist.
Bookish: In an interview with Booklist, you spoke about your father being a diabetic and how you took it upon yourself at a young age to “keep him alive.” Do you think that influenced how you wrote Kell?
VS: Oh, that’s a great question. To be frank, I think it influences how I write everything. I grew up studying microexpressions. With diabetics, their blood sugar drops and everything about them changes very, very minutely. So if you know what to look for, you do feel like you can keep them alive. My relationship with my father shapes my characters’ phobia of losing people close to them if they’re not paying attention. Kell and Rhy both believe they can keep each other alive through sheer vigilance—though Kell more so than Rhy.
I might be too close. It’s hard for me to break it down on an individual character level because I see it in everything that I write. I nearly lost my father so many times growing up, and I was braced from a young age that he was going to die. I grew up incredibly aware of how fragile life is. Being faced with mortality and its preventability at a young age created a theme in my work that the onus is on you to keep what you love safe. The fragility of life and death, the fear of losing things close to you, and that hypervigilance are there in all of my characters. But considering Kell is the most like me in this cast, it does make sense that he mirrors that part of me.
I always had to be super observant growing up, and I think it guided me towards storytelling because I was always writing scenarios in my head and paying attention to the people around me. When you add in that I was an only child and only children are already the tiny gods of their own words, it makes sense that I became a writer.
Bookish: You’ve said that if you had Lila’s quick fingers for a day you’d steal books. Any particular rare or first edition book you’d swipe first?
VS: I put little, tiny Easter eggs to myself in my books, and one of the precious items that Kell has in his collection in A Darker Shade of Magic is Songs of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake. It’s also what Lila recites from when she’s using poetry to help manipulate magic in A Gathering of Shadows. I grew up with poetry; I started out a poet. For that reason, I definitely think I would gravitate towards rare editions of 18th and 19th century poetry.
Bookish: You play with a lot of fantasy tropes in your work, twisting them and subverting readers’ expectations. If you could permanently rid the world of one fantasy trope, what would it be?
VS: Love triangles. It’s not love triangles inherently that I dislike; it’s the way that more often than not they’re handled in fiction. Often what’s passed off as a love triangle involves no love—it’s lust or companionship or safety or something else. I also hate that insta-love trope: Suddenly two people meet and it’s just on from the get-go. I’m much more intrigued when one character maybe started as a friend and one is toxicity incarnate. I love toxic relationships, and maybe that’s why I just don’t buy into love triangles. I buy into complexity triangles. I buy into the idea that we’re attracted to different people simultaneously, but I have a massive issue with calling it love. Even when I put romance in my books, it’s almost never love. There’s one true romantic pairing in the Shades of Magic series, and it’s not Kell and Lila. They’re drawn together. They’re bonded by something. But if you look at all of my books, there’s no romance. It’s not about love, it’s about entanglements.
Rhy and Alucard are my only true romantic pairing. I really worked hard to make sure Alucard and Rhy had a believable and respectful relationship, and even they have a very complicated history. They have a lot to work through. They’re also quite young, and there is an age gap between them. Alucard is four years older than Rhy, who’s only 20. Rhy was scarred by Alucard at 17. There’s a lot of damage. I have a problem in stories that don’t acknowledge that. I always joke that in my books my characters getting together is something that happens after the world has been saved, not in the middle because… priorities.
Bookish: How long have you known how this book was going to end? Did you know who would live, who would die, and where everyone’s story would take them next?
VS: I always write the ending of a book first, so I did know exactly where everybody was going to end up with one exception. This is a massive spoiler, and I don’t even want to say it. The character death at the end was not supposed to be there. I worked very, very hard over the course of drafting Conjuring to keep that character alive. I realized towards the last round of revisions that it was the wrong answer and it didn’t feel right. I have these little red flags that go up in my head when something’s not working properly. Every other character did exactly what I expected and intended them to do. That character is the only one that resisted, and I think that was my personal reader bias coming in, not author bias. I cared about the character, I wanted to preserve that character, so that was hard for me. It was really, really hard. I went back and forth for days, but once I did it I knew that it was what I had been building to the entire time.
I will say too that I would write lines in the first book and know they were going to come back at the end of book three. There are several key lines from A Darker Shade of Magic that come up in “Anoshe,” the last section in book three. In the first book Lila says that she’ll return to Grey London when she’s seen it, and Kell says “Seen what?” and she says “Everything.” Kell says the exact same thing to Rhy at the end of Conjuring. I like things coming back around. I love parallels, I love circles, and I love when I can weave something in early and swing back around to it later.
Bookish: Lots of characters have died over the course of the series. Which death hit you the hardest?
VS: Oh god. There are six major deaths in Conjuring, and four of them really hurt me. They all hurt, and honestly, I don’t know if I can pick one. Each hurt for very different reasons. There’s a string of about 60 pages where four of those deaths happen and a friend was reading it and messaging my editor saying, “How dare you. How. Dare. You.” It’s a 60 page stretch that takes the wind out of you. I knew every single one of them would happen, but it doesn’t change the fact that every single one of them hurt.
I like torturing my characters; I don’t like killing them. If you kill them, you can’t torture them anymore. And I’m a firm believer in earning your happy ending. Rhy is a prime example of a character that has earned his happy ending. He’s the character that starts out super light, cheery, and joie de vivre, and over the course of the series systematically loses everything. He’s tested in every possible way and is striped down to his bare essentials. Rhy’s forced to grow up severely over the course of these books, so he earns his happy ending.
But it’s no secret that I love torturing my characters. My readers know, they’re prepared. There’s a flashback with Holland where readers see the night the Dane twins actually took the castle and captured him. And I have never had more glee than bringing the Dane twins back for this one scene. My editor read that and told me, “You are damaged.” I was taking so much enjoyment from that one scene. But I do hate killing characters. Unfortunately when you’re working with a world that has high stakes, it’s just an inevitability. I don’t ever have useless deaths. If a character dies it’s because they would have died. It’s not a plot trick.
Bookish: As we’ve discussed, this is your first series finale. So your readers are going in not knowing what to expect from you. They go in wondering if you’re a George R.R. Martin who is just going to kill everyone or if you’re more of a J.K. Rowling.
VS: That’s such a good point. It’s really interesting, and I haven’t really thought very much about the fact that my readers don’t know what to expect of me when it comes to endings. The running joke online is that everyone expects the worst from me. I’ve been saying for six months that Conjuring could have a happy ending and my readers are like “I don’t believe you!” or “You’re trying to troll us.” But it also depends on your definition of happy. With all of my books, whether they’re ends of series or not, I want them to have hope in them. I think hope is the important thing, not happiness.
Bookish: I was hopeful when I started reading it, but I really doubted the happy ending in the scene where Alucard is left alone on the ship. It’s a very human and very powerful moment for him. But for me, I was tearing up and thinking, “Schwab is going to do it. She’s actually going to kill him.”
VS: That was a hard moment. As a writer, I knew the beat I wanted to hit there which is that Alucard is essentially coming to terms with his own death and with the fact that Rhy’s not there with him. He didn’t get to resolve things. He didn’t get to keep the promise that he made. I’m glad you felt that way, because you’re supposed to.
Bookish: Your fans keep asking if Conjuring will destroy them, and you said that if it does, you hope it puts them back together as well.
VS: That’s my hope. I mean, that’s the mark of a good book. I want the book to stick with you. I want this to be a book where a week, a month, or a year after reading it you’re still thinking about it. You go back and read it again because you want to spend time with the characters. I joke that my editor and I had a running kiss/kill count for Conjuring, but I do think there is a balance. Between witty banter and murder, there’s a balance.
V.E. Schwab is the author of The Near Witch and The Archived. The product of a British mother, a Beverly Hills father, and a southern upbringing, Schwab has a penchant for tea and BBC shows, and a serious and well-documented case of wanderlust. Vicious is her first adult book.