Feel like taking a journey to a magical world? Let V.E. Schwab’s Kell be your guide. He’s an Antari, meaning he can travel between parallel worlds, all of which are connected by alternate versions of London. Kell’s travels began in A Darker Shade of Magic (where he met a thief named Lila), continued in A Gathering of Shadows, and conclude with A Conjuring of Light—which hit shelves this week. We had the pleasure of chatting with Schwab about the epic conclusion, the series’ stunning covers, and her favorite books. Whether you’ve been following Kell’s adventures from the start or are ready to dive in for the first time, you won’t want to miss the end of this story.
This is the first half of a two-part interview. Part one is completely spoiler-free, and readers who haven’t read any of the three books are safe to read it. Readers beware, part two is filled with spoilers for A Conjuring of Light. Read here at your own risk.
Bookish: A Conjuring of Light marks a milestone for you. This is the first series you’ve completed. How do feel now that it’s over? And what do you think you’ve learned as an author in this process?
V.E. Schwab: I’ve been really excited. It took forever to write; this book took more work than any other. At one point my editor and I were in a flat in Scotland together just passing pages back and forth because it took so much rigorous effort to tie up all the threads. I know that my editor and I have done the absolute best we could on this book, but before the pub date you exist in a place where there’s a fear that you’re the only ones who think that.
The ends of my stories all live with me, but getting to share an ending with my readership for the first time was extremely scary. There’s pressure to wrap it up and close it right. I don’t want anyone to feel disappointed. I want to take them on a journey that’s extremely high-stakes, meaning there will be a cost. But I’m a firm believer that we earn our happy endings, so it was really important for me to show that the sacrifices have a purpose. None of the costs in this story are arbitrary. In every book I write, it’s about saving the day, not saving the world. So at the end of each book you get a breather, and it was really nice in A Conjuring of Light to have a longer pause at the end to bring everything together.
It’s been a journey. That’s really the only word that I can think to describe the series. It has been a journey, and I’ve never been prouder of anything in my entire life.
Bookish: We can’t talk about this series without referencing the covers. They’re stunning, clever, and the last one even feels a bit cheeky with the floating crown. Did you have any input on this final design?
VS: I did, actually. Normally, authors have very little input and when the series started, I didn’t have much. For A Darker Shade of Magic, I was given two artistic directions to choose between. The first was a classic fantasy look that’s often seen on Brandon Sanderson’s covers, and the other choice was completely different and that’s what I chose. I wanted something that felt retro and ambiguous. I didn’t want readers to be able to tell what kind of book it was; I wanted it to feel like a book that could be shelved in multiple sections of the store. My background is in design and art, and I’m always very driven to iconographic style. So when I saw the first cover by designer Will Staehle, even though I didn’t have a huge amount of input outside of the initial direction, I knew that we were going to be set for the series. I knew that he was going to be able to do an amazing job. And he has, the covers are incredible. I’m honestly so honored to work with him. I couldn’t be happier with the covers, and I feel a huge number of people have picked up the books because of Will’s art.
I often tell my readers that the author only has control over one thing: the words on the page. We don’t have control over any of the things that readers take in as a first impression. The jacket copy is written by the editor, the cover is designed by someone else, and authors get their titles axed all the time. A Darker Shade of Magic is title 75. We fought for three and a half months over the title because my first book was called Vicious and nobody could spell it. People still can’t spell it. The number of people who write me fan letters calling it Viscus… The original title for Darker Shade was Traveler, but nobody could spell traveler either. The American spelling has one l and the British spelling has two, and it’s an American-made book with a British setting written by an American-British author. We couldn’t agree on the spelling, so they were finally like “you can’t have traveler.” Finally reaching A Darker Shade of Magic was a communal effort, and somebody else titled A Gathering of Shadows. I was furious about it because there was a long-running joke in house about Magic the Gathering and how that was going to be the title of the second book, and then A Gathering of Shadows got chosen.
A Conjuring of Light was the first one I titled myself. I expected my editor to ax it right away because that had always been the process. When she came back and said that she liked it, I asked, “Where is the ‘but’?” There wasn’t one, she said they wanted to keep it! I couldn’t believe I got to keep the title.
All of that is to say that authors don’t have control over the vast majority of those first-impression cues, so when you love something like the cover, it makes your job so much easier because you don’t have any initial hurdles to get the reader over.
Bookish: Did that title, A Conjuring of Light, come to you fully formed or did you play around with other ideas first?
VS: It was my very first one. I’m one of those authors who has to have a title for her work. My editor and team will tell me to give it a placeholder and continue, but I can’t. It will distract me if I don’t have a title; it’s maddening to me. Within the first 50 pages of this book, I had the idea for the title. Being extremely proud of the book, having exactly the cover I wanted, and having a title that I had true ownership over for the final book made me so excited. It felt like everything came to fruition. I really couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Bookish: Would you rather be a thief, a pirate, a royal, or an Antari?
VS: I couldn’t be a pirate because I really hate water. I have a very antagonistic relationship with the ocean, despite how many boats are in my books and how often I feature the ocean. I write wish fulfillment, and I write about boats because I never have to be on one. I love swimming, I love contained water, but I’m not cut out for the ocean in any way shape or form. I get horrifically seasick, so I’m going to nix pirate. I should say royal or Antari, but I’ve just always wanted to be a thief. Considering a thief is just a pirate on land, I’m going to say thief.
Bookish: If you had Lila’s quick fingers for a day, what would you steal?
VS: Books. There’s just no question. I have a library obsession and a need to own everything that I read. I’m always exceeding my book budget, so I think if I could steal anything I’d leave the silver, knives, and watches to other people. I would take the books.
Bookish: What were you most hoping to accomplish with the Shades of Magic series? What feeling do you hope to leave readers with when they finish A Conjuring of Light?
VS: I wanted to create something accessible. Fantasy felt very inaccessible to me growing up. I mean, I did grow up with Harry Potter and that was my doorway. But otherwise there’s a feeling, even with series by George R.R. Martin or J.R.R. Tolkien, that you have to prove that you’re a true fan and that you belong in that world. I didn’t want that.
I wanted people to just be able to pick up my book. I wanted them to go into the bookstore, pick up the book (with a cover that gave them no idea what it was about), and love it. Maybe they don’t even think they’re a genre fan, but they realize that it’s exactly like the TV, movies, and fiction that they like. I wanted them put their biases aside and lose themselves in the story. Nothing makes me happier than when I get messages about readers missing their train stops or letting their tea go cold because they forget where they are while they’re reading. That’s what I want.
And when people read A Conjuring of Light, I want them to take away that it’s not an ending, it’s a change in journey. It is of course an ending in some ways; it’s a chapter closing. But it’s a very big world and new doors into that world are always opening. I hope people want more when they leave it. I also hope they’re satisfied with what they’ve had. It’s a careful balance you try to keep as an author. You want people to be satisfied, but not done.
Bookish: What is a book series ending that you, as a reader, felt was done perfectly?
VS: Oh god, that’s so hard. It’s hard because I’m like the meanest judge ever. My favorite series technically has an expansion to it, but I choose to just think of it as the original three books. That’s Sabriel by Garth Nix.
Oh! I can think of one—yes! Melina Marchetta’s Lumatere Chronicles is one of the most perfect series I’ve ever read. It’s stunning, one of my favorite series of all time. It predates a lot of our current fantasy trends, and it falls in a really nice place in the middle of adult and young adult literature. I love it. I recommend it to everyone.
Bookish: You’ve said that the Shades of Magic series has several arcs, and that A Conjuring of Light is end of the Black Magic arc. Will we ever get to see more of this world?
VS: Maybe. I hope so. I will say, in a hypothetical sense, purely hypothetical, if I were to continue, it would shift perspectives. I feel like certain characters’ core stories are done. If I did get to continue the series, the primary characters would become secondary characters, and we’d have a new primary. I’d love to create something in which readers feel like they can read each set. If they enjoyed the Shades of Magic series, they could stop if they just wanted it to be what it was. Or they could continue if they wanted to continue.
Bookish: As brothers, Rhy and Kell are tied to each other, no matter where they go. I think many readers feel the same way about their favorite books. What books do you feel tied to?
VS: Oh goodness. I have such weird ties, and they’re arbitrary. I’m tied to two different books; I carry them in my heart. The first is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. It’s nonfiction, and it’s a series of essays by a world famous geobiologist. It combines her process of dealing with mental illness with her analysis of the natural world around her, and it was just one of those books that shaped me and sticks with me every single day.
It’s a very strange pairing, but I feel like those two books sum up a lot about me.
Honestly, I had no idea what to expect from Lab Girl. I was simply in an editing cycle and couldn’t read fiction. I picked it up because it had a pretty cover, and I looked forward to stealing moments with it and being able to sit down and read a chapter. That’s really rare with me when it comes to nonfiction. Usually I read nonfiction before bed at night, and instead I was sitting in my apartment at 10 am, when I should have been working, with a cup of tea and stealing another chapter of it. Lab Girl resonated with me; I felt completely in sync with it as a book.
The other book that resonated with me in that way is Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson. It’s funny, gorgeous, and also deals with public persona and mental health. I read it at a time when I was really struggling. I was going on tour for A Gathering of Shadows, and I’m a very introverted person. I also deal with very severe anxiety, which makes you feel like you’re trapped inside of your own body, inside of your own head. Getting to read someone like Lawson talking about the exact same thing makes you feel like you have a tether in the world. It’s one of the reasons I’m so honest about mental health online. I want people to know that in this moment what feels like a permanent state isn’t, but you’re also not alone in feeling that way.
Ready for part two of this interview? Check it out here.
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.