V. E. Schwab – The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

My relationship with V. E. Schwab’s books is complicated. I loved A Darker Shade of Magic, was incredibly disappointed in its sequel, and found the conclusion to that trilogy only okay. But then I heard what she had taken on in her latest novel, and people – especially ones who didn’t like Schwab’s writing – posted rave reviews about this book. So I got drawn in by the hype and tried it myself. With mixed results.

THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF ADDIE LARUE
by V. E. Schwab

Published: Tor, 2020
eBook: 448 pages
Audiobook: 17 hours 10 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 5/10

Opening line: A girl is running for her life.

France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever-and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.
Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world.
But everything changes when, after nearly 300 years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore, and he remembers her name.
In the vein of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Life After Life, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is New York Times bestselling author V. E. Schwab’s #1 New York Times Bestselling Author genre-defying tour de force.

I was determined to love this book when I started. A young French girl makes a deal with the devil for eternal life but the price she pays is that everyone immediately forgets her and she can’t leave a mark on the world. She can’t even say her name or write anything down. I mean, what a great idea, what a great sfnal riff on Faust, right? Well…
For a book that I went into wanting to love it, it is truly impressive how much of a let down it turned out to be. There were so many little things that bothered me and they added up to a big pile of dislikes.

First and foremost, the plot was soooooo predictable. I mean, you could guess it after Addie and Henry’s first meeting. Maybe some minor things weren’t obvious from miles away, but all the big plot beats were easy to guess and that took a lot of suspense out of a story that could have been so exciting.
It takes half the novel to even catch up to what we’ve already been told by the synopsis. I’m not saying there weren’t any interesting moments to be found in the first half of the book but there’s nothing truly surprising or innovative. Addie makes a deal with the devil (or a devil), lives forever, is forgotten by everyone and eventually meets one person, one guy, who does remember her. That’s literally what the back of the book says and it takes up half of its pages!

The switches between past and present make the story easy enough to read and I never quite felt bored but I was also never truly hooked. After all, I already knew certain things from the synopsis and reading about them in slightly more detail wasn’t exactly riveting. I did like seeing Addie’s beginnings as a cursed human. Figuring out what exactly her curse means and learning how to live a life – no matter how long – when nobody remembers her, presented quite the challenge. There are so many little things I didn’t consider like renting a place to live, or later opening a bank account, working a job… none of that is possible for Addie because as soon as she’s out of sight people don’t remember who she is. And she couldn’t even sign her name if someone did remember her. It’s a really cool concept and Schwab showed us glimpses of Addie’s trouble finding her way but I was constantly hoping for more depth, more insight into what this does to a person’s mind. Being this non-entity in the eyes of everyone else, never having a place you can call home, not having any friends or relationships that last longer than a few hours… That shit does something to you. But sadly, all we get is telling, not showing, of these troubles and Addie doesn’t really change because of this.

We are shown that Addie grows into quite a good thief (how else should she survive?) and that she becomes rather careless with what she says and to whom because all she has to do is walk away for a few minutes and she gets a do-over. But I felt that Addie was altogether too normal for a 300-year-old woman who has been lonely for 277 of them. The weight of those years never really got through in the writing and neither does Addie feel like someone with that amount of life experience. Wouldn’t every young person seem to be dreadfully boring and naive to her? Would she even want to be friends with people the age she looks?
And holy shit, wouldn’t living through wars, revolutions, scientific discoveries, and seeing different places of the world change you in some way? A person who lives 300 years, no matter where they started, should be anything but normal! And yet, Addie was exactly the same in the flashback chapters as she was in the present ones, and neither version was particularly interesting.

The characters in general are super one-dimensional. All we learn about Addie is that she wants to be free and she’s stubborn, not willing to give into the Darkness who keeps coming back asking for her soul. Henry is also defined only by the fact that he wants to be loved and never feels like he’s enough… Sure, Addie is into art and tries to leave her mark on the world by inspiring artists to create something that she cannot. But that’s all there is. She has lived through several wars and by 2014, she still hasn’t found anything new to interest her?
The Darkness could have been a cool villain but Schwab is so enamoured with his looks that she rarely has anything to say about him other than the changing shade of his green eyes or how his dark curls hang into his face. I must have read a variation of that exact description about 50 times in this book and – suprisingly – it didn’t make him a more interesting character, it just annoyed the shit out of me. I DON’T CARE WHAT COLOR HIS EYES ARE OR HOW SEXILY HIS HAIR HANGS INTO HIS FACE!!! Give him a personality, please!

The trope of super old being falling in love with a young person has been annyoing me forever – I don’t care if it’s vampires or immortal humans or gods. Just because someone looks 23 doesn’t mean a romance with an actual 28-year-old  guy would make sense. Addie speaks a dozen languages, has read so many books, experienced so much – again, including multiple wars and other things that would be traumatic to anyone else – and yet she doesn’t feel… understimulated talking to Henry who hasn’t figured out his life yet because he’s just 28 years old? I’m not trying to be mean or pretend like young people can’t be wise or clever (I’m in my mid-thirties so I’m not much wiser than Henry), but I just find it so unbelievable that an age gap this large wouldn’t at least have some impact on a relationship. For the sake of a cheesy love story with no chemistry whatsoever, in this book it doesn’t.

My other major gripe kind of ties into the whole 300-year-old Addie problem. We read alternating chapters about the present where Addie meets Henry and Addie’s past, slowly catching up the past chapters to where she is now. And there was soooooo much potential for cool stuff in those past chapters because ADDIE HAS LIVED 300 YEARS AND HAS SEEN SOME SHIT! But do we get to see any of that? Spoiler alert: Nope!
Addie lives in Paris, in Florence, in Venice, London, New York, New Orleans, all those interesting and exciting places, and especially set during exciting times. Sometimes terrible times, yes, but exciting to read about. But Schwab apparently didn’t feel like actually taking us on Addie’s journey (or maybe she didn’t want to do all that research) because most of those chapters focus on unimportant things, and many (oh so many) are just Addie and the Darkness repeating their age-old conversation about whether she’s finally ready to give up and hand over her soul.
The telling-instead-of-showing flaw was more obvious than ever in those chapters because Schwab likes counting off things that Addie has recently witnessed or wants to see in her near future. Like the Eiffel Tower being built for example. But why not just take us there and let us feel her wonder at actually seeing it?? No, Schwab chose her settings for ultimate boredom and contented herself with letting Addie make lists in her head about all the cool stuff we could have read about if the author had bothered writing it.

Speaking of taking out the suspense – Addie is immortal. So we know she can’t die by natural means or be killed. That’s part of her deal. She lives as long as she wants to until she’s ready to stop and give her soul to the Darkness. So whenever Addie gets into danger (being cornered by guards, caught stealing, what have you), we know nothing can possibly happen to her. So while those scenes at least show a different side of Addie’s long life, they weren’t all that engaging because we knew she’d get out of it easily. And if things appeared to go really bad (she can’t be killed, but people can still hurt her), the Darkness shows up conveniently to whisk her away. After that happens twice, you kind of know that the next time she’s in danger, he’s going to show up again and point his sexy green eyes at her while having his dark curls fall onto his forehead.

All of that said, the book is still very readable. Readable… this stupid word means something different to everyone, but to me it means easily flowing prose, something you can pick up and read for an hour without noticing the time or pages go by. Although Schwab throws in occasional poetic sentences and a ton of lines that should feel important but aren’t because I just didn’t care about the characters, her writing is quite simple and easy to follow. Apart from the excessive use of the word “palimpsest”, the language isn’t difficult or flowery (which is part of the problem because she could have used language to set the scene, to create atmosphere whenever Addie was in a new place or we see her living in a different time… but yeah, there’s wasted potential all over this book).
The fact that the chapters are really, really short is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it makes you read more (just one more chapter, it’s just 5 pages) and a curse because none of those chapters let you breathe long enough to immerse yourself in the time or place it’s set in. If I only get to spend half a page with some guy Addie sleeps with, why should I care about him 50 pages later? To me, the reader, he is an unimportant character, a name that was mentioned once. He may mean something to Addie but it’s the author’s job to make him mean something to us as well.

What ultimately disappointed me so much was that this is such a cool idea that could have been a great novel in the hands of someone more capable. I didn’t feel the romance at all, I didn’t care about Addie’s many past lovers (because we never get a chance to get to know them properly), and I could predict every single “twist” plus the ending from very early on. You’d think it would feel nice to be proven right when reading a book – like, yay I knew this was coming – but it actually takes all the pleasure out of it. I wanted to be surprised, I wanted to be emotionally engaged, I wanted to care whether Addie and Henry stayed together, whether she could get out of her curse somehow, whether her long life would actually mean anything in the end.
Unfortunately (and nobody is more bummed out about this than me) everything about this book fell flat. From cheesy lines to endless repetitions of the same conversations, to the wasted potential of 300 years’ worth of history left unexplored.

I wanted to like this book so badly and I’m crushed it turned out to be a shallow, trope-ridden romance that has nothing much to say about its characters, art, or history. The only upside is that, among the many brilliant 2020 publications, I can safely leave this one off my Hugo nomination ballot…

This novel’s biggest – and its most ironic – fault is how utterly forgettable it is.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Meh

 

V. E. Schwab & Andrea Olimpieri – The Steel Prince

I’ve only recently  finished the Shades of Magic trilogy with mixed feelings. The third book was fun to read, but the conclusion felt rather underwhelming to me. There is no denying, however, that V. E. Schwab has created an intriguing world of parallel Londons that I’ll gladly return to every chance I get. Thanks to the publisher for this Graphic Novel ARC which let me dive back into Red London for a while and see what happened before Kell, Rhy and Lila.

SHADES OF MAGIC VOL. 1: The Steel Prince 
by V. E. Schwab and Andrea Olimpieri

Published by: Titan Comics, 2019
Paperback: 112 pages
Series: Shades of Magic #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: Once, there were four worlds instead of one, set side by side like sheets of paper.

Delve into the thrilling, epic tale of the young and arrogant prince Maxim Maresh, long before he became the king of Red London and adoptive father to Kell, the lead of A Darker Shade of Magic!
The youthful Maresh is sent to a violent and unmanageable port city on the Blood Coast of Verose, on strict orders from his father, King Nokil Maresh, to cut his military teeth in this lawless landscape.
There, he encounters an unruly band of soldiers, a lawless landscape, and the intoxicatingly deadly presence of the newly returned pirate queen, Arisa…
Collects Shades of Magic: The Steel Prince #1-4.

First of all, let  me tell you that if you haven’t read the Shades of Magic trilogy by V.E. Schwab, go do that now. I don’t think reading this graphic novel prequel will make much sense or really work for you  if you aren’t already familiar with the (wonderful!) world the author created in her novels. There is a whole magic system here that is not explained in the graphic novel, there are power structures that should also be understood to some degree before reading it. So with that important piece of information out of the way, let’s talk about the graphic novel.

I’ve been a fan of comics and graphic novels for a while now because the good ones manage to evoke as much emotion in the reader as a big fat novel can, all without much description but instead with pictures. That said, a good novel writer is not necessarily a good graphic novel writer because the two media are so different and you have to use different methods to get the story you want to tell across. While this was not a bad book, it was quite obvious that Schwab is more at home with prose. I enjoyed the story fine, but I just wanted a bit more. More of everything. More description, more world building, more character development, more magic, more intricate battles… It was all there to some degree but there was just never enough of it.

The story revolves around Maxim, Kell and Rhy’s father (or Kell’s adoptive father, if you want to be correct). In the novel trilogy, Maxim really got to shine in the third book, so I was eager to see what the king had been up to in his youth. The premise of the story is that the four Londons are separated, there are no Antari around, and the king is quite happy with this situation. Not so Maxim who is full of excitement and wants to save the world and make it better, but who is also impulsive and trusts too much in his own abilities.

Maxim was an intriguing character, especially compared to the older, wiser King Maxim we meet in the novels. He is easy to like because although he acts rashly sometimes, you know from the start that his heart is in the right place. The fact that he is amazing with his magic also doesn’t hurt.

Because Maxim’s father disapproves of his son’s efforts to find Antari magicians, he sends him away to Verose which – as you might expect – doesn’t go too smoothly. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but this is where Maxim meets Isra who faithful readers of Schwab’s books will recognise immediately. Seeing her former self was also a lot of fun, and I especially enjoyed the group dynamic between all the people Maxim meets. Naturally, there is an opponent that needs to be defeated and while I thought she was super cool as villains go, this was were the plot started losing me. The ending came way too quickly and felt sort of abrupt, particularly because the beginning took such care to introduce the world to the readers a bit and to show where Maxim is coming from.

Andrea Olimpieri’s art is beautiful, no doubt. I really liked how the characters were drawn but I had some problems with the action sequences and the magic. Arisa’s (the villain) magic looked absolutely stunning and managed to convey that sense of danger through art that I’m sure the characters felt whenever confronted with her. But the other types of magic didn’t really give me that sense of wonder that I want to feel when reading fantasy. The battle scenes – again, great ideas and great story telling as such – also suffered because of the medium chosen. You’d think any visual medium would be better suited for fast-paced action scenes than simple prose, but because comic books are comprised of still images, not moving ones, I think it’s incredibly hard to make fight scenes thrilling in them. For me, it didn’t really work in this book.

Overall, I enjoyed the read. I can’t say I fell into it the way I did with A Darker Shade of Magic, but it was time well spent. The ending rounds up the story nicely (if too quickly) but definitely leaves room for more of Maxim’s adventures. Even if this wasn’t one of my favorite graphic novels, I’ll probably check out whatever comes next because it’s a lovely world to escape to and there are so many details yet to explore. Maybe, if Schwab continues writing these, we’ll get to see Rhy’s birth and how Kell came into their lives. Here’s to hoping!

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Make sure to check out the other stops on the Steel Prince blog tour:

V. E. Schwab – A Darker Shade of Magic

Victoria Schwab has been writing YA for a while but it was last year, when her novel Vicious came out, that I got really interested. Then, before I could find the time to squeeze Vicious into my reading, everybody exploded with love for her latest book – and I mean, look at that cover. I keep stroking it and looking at the pretty maps.

A Darker Shade final for IreneA DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC
by V. E. Schwab

Published by: Tor, 2015
Hardcover: 400 pages
Series: A Darker Shade of Magic #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Kell wore a very peculiar coat.

Kell is one of the last Travelers—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes—as such, he can choose where he lands. There’s Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, ruled by a mad King George. Then there’s Red London, where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire. White London, ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne—a place where people fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London…but no one speaks of that now.

Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler, personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see—a dangerous hobby, and one that has set him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations, first robs him, then saves him from a dangerous enemy, and then forces him to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive—and that is proving trickier than they hoped.

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Kell is a magical errand boy between worlds, delivering letters between the kings and queens of Grey, Red, and White London. So what if he picks up a little something on the side occasionally? Collecting trinkets from different worlds or selling them to aspiring magicians can’t do much harm, can it? When Kell acquires something he decidedly shouldn’t have, things go batshit crazy and he has to use all his wits and powers to fix his mistake and save all Londons and probably the rest of the world, too.

darker shade of magic detail uk

I love the idea of parallel Londons, even though I’m not sure how I feel about being stuck in the grey version of the world. Both the colors as well as the amount of magic is used very effectively. The three (or rather: four) Londons feel like very organic, living cities with the most powerful magic closer to black London and the least magic in the London furthest away. The color codes work beautifully but I must add how well V.E. Schwab used smells to distinguish each London from its neighbours. Red London is flowers, White London is ash and steel, Grey London is smoke. Small details like this took the world-building up a notch or two.

World-building is also the aspect I had the most gripes with. A lot of it is done through dialogue, with Kell explaining things to Lila, or in descriptive info-dumps. This isn’t very elegant but at least it’s consistent with the world and characters. After all, Lila doesn’t know anything about parallel worlds and actually needs Kell to explain it to her. This happened mostly at the beginning of the book, to set up the worlds. Only established, the parallel Londons don’t really get the benefit of much description anymore. It would have been nice to learn about the surroundings while Lila and Kell were actually there.

“You don’t know anything about these worlds,” he said, but the fight was bleeding out of his voice.
“Sure I do,” countered Lila cheerfully. “There’s Dull London, Kell London, Creepy London, and Dead London,” she recited, ticking them off on her fingers. “See? I’m a fast learner.”

Now, let’s talk about the heart and soul of this story: the characters.
Other than Kell, there is only one more magician powerful enough to travel between worlds – Holland. Although he isn’t a main character, he is one of the most fascinating people in this story and I honestly can’t get enough of him.

art by Victoria Ying

art by Victoria Ying

Delilah “Lila” Bard is adorable! She is a stubborn, ambitious, clever thief from Grey London, who can’t quite hide that she also happens to be a good person. When she and Kell collide, wonderful bickering and fighting ensues. They banter, they fight, they battle each other, they save each others lives, and then they fight some more. Their relationship pushed all my buttons, especially as they learn to trust each other more toward the end of the book. One thing I found rather jarring was the “mystery” surrounding Lila. If my suspicions are correct, then the plot twist is painfully obvious. But for now, I can still hope that the author is trying to trick me into thinking I know things about Lila when I really don’t.

Kell himself is an intriguing person. He has all the power but is rather shy and prefers to remain in the background. He grew up like a prince but can never know if it’s because his adopted parents – the king and queen – really love him or because they own him. His relationship to his brother Rhy is clearly real and important, but could have used more groundwork. We are told, rather than shown, how much they care about each other, how they really love each other like family. Only in the last third of the book does this brotherly love get to shine.

The fast-paced plot makes it impossible to put the book down. If it weren’t for the day job, I would have read this in one sitting – and I recommend to anyone starting this book to do it on a weekend. The ending was well-rounded, so you can read this as a standalone, but there was one thing Kell and Lila had to do (which they do almost as a side-note) that I’m sure will have repercussions in the next book. Oh boy, how I look forward to the trouble they’ll get into…

So all things considered, the minor flaws can be forgiven because this book also happens to tell a damn good story, full of action and surprises and smart people doing clever things to save the world. Now that the set-up is out of the way, I only have to wait a year (almost) until I can return to Lila, Kell, Rhy, and Holland – and see what events they have set in motion unknowingly. Let there be bickering, flirting, magic, and mayhem. I cannot wait!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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A Darker Shade of Magic series:

  1. A Darker Shade of Magic
  2. A Gathering of Shadows

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Second opinions: