Benefit of the Doubt: Foreshadowing in A Darker Shade of Magic

Note: I have not read the rest of the books in the Darker Shade of Magic series, this is an opinion formed purely on the way the first book was written and my predictions about how the rest of the series panned out could easily be wrong.

It’s a fine line between subtly and cheesiness in most writing. This is especially true when the author is attempting to give attentive readers some insight into future plot twists. V.E. Schwab wavers across that line and the reading experience in A Darker Shade of Magic is heavily impacted by how willing the reader is to buy into both Schwab’s writing and their own intelligence. There are moments where expectation is built up and then allowed to sputter out while in other instances the hints seem less like hints and more like flashing neon signs. In a book with intriguing world building and an interesting cast of characters I found myself often willing to give the author the credit, but it is not the kind of masterful construction that leaves the reader in awe.

There is a fairly well known principle in the world of theatre known as Chekhov’s gun which states that if a gun appears on stage it must be fired before the show is over. I think this applies to books and to objects that are decidedly not guns (although A Darker Shade of Magic does successfully fire the singular gun that appears in it’s pages). Where V.E. Schwab fails Chekhov’s gun is with the map that Lila insistently carries along for much of the book and reflects on even in the last few paragraphs of the novel. The treatment of the map feels like foreshadowing from the very first moment it appears, the author seems to be putting far more emphasis on the object than the character could conceivably understand. It is a loaded gun that has the potential to go off with some explosive revelation and I got excited about it. The fact that the map was still just a map as the end of the book approached was frustrating.

That frustration was enhanced when Schwab added a foreshadowing mistake that went in the opposite direction and seemed to me to be extraordinarily heavy handed. A character, who had appeared previously for all of two pages, comments on Lila having a glass eye after making statements about her having power waiting to be awoken. In my mind this quite clearly means that she has the same blood magic powers as Kell, characterized by a black eye which she is missing only because she physically lost it. It is so blatant that I would have much preferred Schwab just have the big reveal in that moment because when it is actually revealed (as I assume it is) in some later book its not really going to a reveal. Good foreshadowing is subtle, enough to direct the reader towards that culminating moment, but this was loud and in your face.

In the end you have to decide whether or not you are willing to give the author credit. The missteps in Schwab’s foreshadowing are not so obvious that the writing can just be dismissed as poorly done but it also isn’t convincingly good. Even though I’m not confident that the let down of Lila’s map will be fixed in a later book I read A Darker Shade of Magic under the forced assumption that it is simply set up for a later book. Alternately you can believe that you yourself are just particularly intelligent to notice the comments about Lila’s eye. It’s a matter of picking a strategy, because there are elements of the book that are compelling enough that I wanted to finish reading it without the nagging annoyance at what feels like blatant misuse of foreshadowing.

Books that hover around the dividing line between good and bad writing can be particularly frustrating to read but can often be balanced out by giving the author more credit than you think they deserve. This is most true of series like A Darker Shade of Magic where you can project the let downs and reveals into a later book in the series. Most of the time it isn’t worth it to do the mental gymnastics required to accept poorly executed foreshadowing but there is enough interesting world building in Schwab’s books that I wanted to push through. In the end though, the effort I had to put into not hating the writing inevitably puts a strain on how I remember the book. I gave the author the benefit of the doubt but in the end I’m not sure it was worth it.

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