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‘The Fragile Threads of Power’ Review: A Slow, Absorbing Fantasy

4 Stars

Cover of V.E. Schwab's "The Fragile Threads of Power."
Cover of V.E. Schwab's "The Fragile Threads of Power." By Courtesy of Macmillan
By Millie Mae Healy, Crimson Staff Writer

V. E. Schwab’s “The Fragile Threads of Power,” released on Sept. 26, comes after her “Shades of Magic” trilogy, which follows the all-powerful Kell as he tries to protect his brother and his home from magical threats encroaching upon four different dimensions of London. “The Fragile Threads of Power” picks up where “A Conjuring of Light,” the last installment in the “Shades of Magic” trilogy, left off, depicting the struggles of characters old and new as they deal with rising political unrest and novel threats, both magical and interpersonal.

“The Fragile Threads of Power” gets off to a slow start, luxuriating in dropping breadcrumbs about the events of the seven years between “Shades of Magic” and the new novel. The book slowly reintroduces the reader to the returning cast of characters in addition to new characters who have found themselves mired in the narrative. Though the majority of this backstory is engaging, there are many moments where “Threads of Power” feels less like a novel and more like drawn-out bonus content. Though characters act with reasonable haste, the novel prioritizes a lateral exploration of the past and the book’s expansive worldbuilding, resulting in the massive final page count of 650.

The book’s pace is also slightly hampered by the lack of chronology. The novel is split into twelve sections, each of which mostly explores one location or set of characters. For the majority of the novel, these sections introduce something intriguing in the present day, then leapfrog around in the past. Thankfully, these memories are easy to follow, and they effectively explore how the main cast have changed since we saw them last, but this recursive structure leaves the threads of the story tangled. Considering “Threads of Power” is a sequel, it’s uncharacteristically concerned with the past, particularly with regard to how the aftermath of adventure crafts a character’s personhood as much as a traumatic childhood event. It demonstrates a novel and welcome approach to character exploration.

Like the previous trilogy, “Threads of Power” has a massive cast of characters who each get moments narrated from their point of view. Some perspectives are more compelling than others — an eternal evil of ensemble narratives. When the dynamic magic system is the focus, “Threads of Power” is gripping and memorable, but Schwab clearly wants this to be an introspective character novel as much as an expansive fantasy adventure. Though the original trilogy also favored tangents into the lives of minor characters, it always served the purpose of making the world feel populated and alive, but in “Threads of Power,” these meandering memories serve to build tension and stakes. By building up the world through these flashbacks, “Threads of Power” seamlessly sets up for the threat that will loom over the remainder of the trilogy.

The return of the heroes from “Shades of Magic” is stunningly executed, as the characters feel familiar but viscerally more mature. Former protagonist Kell’s development shines as he reels from the sacrifice he made at the end of “A Conjuring of Light.” He undergoes an atypical character arc as he reckons with who he is and who he can be after enduring massive pain and learning to live with his new disability. In “Threads of Power,” he is no longer a young adult, but a thirty-year-old with sharper edges. Despite this, he is still recognizably Kell, with new talents and changed relationships with those he values most. “Shades of Magic” hero Lila is also a joy to read, as the swashbuckling rogue now lives the life she has always wanted for herself. Her viciousness and ruthlessness continue to cut. Rhy and Alucard both also return, managing the pitfalls of royal life alongside the new inventor Queen Nadiya. The scenes in Red London sparkle as the old and new cast intermingle.

The new lead character Tes, a powerful young runaway, is a compelling addition to the series, as she struggles to carve a life for herself both literally and emotionally. Her uncertainty is refreshing against the self-assurance of many other main characters, and her magical competence is an exciting enlargement of the series’s magic system. Bickering assassins Bex and Calin are both fun archetypes of bad people who enjoy doing bad things but detest the person they have been assigned to work with. They lack, however, sufficient backstory to be memorable, and yet are so present in the novel that they detract from some otherwise tense encounters. Kosika, the child queen of the derelict but slowly reviving White London, is a fascinating character study of a religious zealot who is incredibly powerful and means well, and the changes she has wrought in White London will have massive repercussions for the sequels. The chapters from her perspective only tenuously connect to the book’s main storyline, but she contributes to the sense of scope and magnitude that the novel attains.

“The Fragile Threads of Power” is a book to be tasted rather than chased. It’s a sprawling narrative, hopping around the seven-year time jump between it and its predecessor, as well as between a host of different worlds and a dozen characters. It’s airy, artsy, and moody, certainly atypical for a dense fantasy sequel, but a whirlwind well worth undertaking.

—Staff writer Millie Mae Healy can be reached at milliemae.healy@thecrimson.com.

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