A Sleight of Shadows Returns Readers to Kat Howard’s Unseen WorldBooks Reviews Kat Howard
It’s been six years since Kat Howard’s An Unkindness of Magicians was released, and many readers had likely assumed that novel (with its fairly conclusive, albeit bittersweet ending) was the end of the story of the Unseen World. The arrival of sequel A Sleight of Shadows feels like a welcome gift, and although it never quite reaches the heights of its predecessor—let’s not kid ourselves, An Unkindness of Magicians is honestly just excellent—it’s an enjoyable enough journey that gives us greater insight into the first book’s most memorable character.
Of course, releasing a sequel after so many years have passed comes with its own unique set of challenges—readers and critics may well have forgotten the characters and events of the first novel, and the stakes of the world Howard created no longer feel as immediate as they probably once did. But for those who enjoy when their fantasy looks a little more like the contemporary world we inhabit than a far-off realm with brand new social and political hierarchies to unravel, Howard’s Unseen World still has plenty to offer.
New POVs are introduced, including a local teen who’s only just discovered her magical abilities and the cruel head of House Morgan, whose fury at being denied an easy path to access the power she sees as her due makes for an intriguing new angle with which to enter this story. But its more limited scope may frustrate some readers who were hoping for a more expansive follow-up. (Or, who, for whatever reason didn’t particularly like Sydney, as it is her rage and grief that powers the bulk of this sequel.)
A Sleight of Shadows picks up almost immediately following the end of An Unkindness of Magicians. The Unseen World is reeling in the wake of the Turning that put House Propero in charge and changed the way magic is accessed by any magician that seeks to use it. Sydney, former champion of the newly founded House Laurence, feels lost and isolated without her magic and does daily exercises in an attempt to coax (or force) some portion of her power into reappearing. Laurence himself is opening a school for those who possess magic but have never been formally part of the Unseen World, in an attempt to forge an easier path for those who are now as he once was. And Grace, the new Head of House Prospero and therefore the Unseen World entire, is attempting to balance the shifting needs of a system that, at its heart, is based on corruption and exploitation.
This sequel is more compact, narratively speaking, than its predecessor, and more focused on Sydney’s emotional journey. To a certain degree, this makes sense, given that its precipitating action is inextricably tied up with the fact that she lost her magic at the end of the first book. As she tries to adjust to a life without the power she’s always relied on, she must find a way to stop the slow return of the House of Shadows without the gift that allowed her to dismantle it in the first place.
The lack of her magic makes Sydney a more interesting heroine—most of the challenges she faced in the first book were simply no match for the sheer scope of her power—and her lingering trauma over both her experiences in the House of Shadow and the things she had to do to fight it provide fertile emotional ground for her character. But a mid-novel twist undoes some of the book’s best work in this regard, and despite a few early surprises, the story largely lacks the propulsive external drive that the Turning competition provided the first novel. There, various representatives from specific magical Houses were regularly required to face off in duels providing not just a reason for regular magical battles to take place but an excuse for many different kinds of characters to be forced to interact with each other.
That…doesn’t happen here, and the story is weaker for it. Because while the return of the House of Shadows is frightening on paper, the building itself isn’t necessarily the book’s major villain—it’s the all-too-human entitlement of the people trying to force someone else to shoulder the burdens of their own choices that proves truly monstrous. Much like An Unkindness of Magicians, A Sleight of Shadows is at its best when it grapples with the cost that these extraordinary abilities carry, and what those who wield them are willing to sacrifice both to keep them and access them more easily.
This is a world in which using magic causes physical blowback to the caster, and the Unseen World’s solution—for each family to make a human sacrifice once a generation to a sort of collective pool that would bear the load of those sacrifices rather than the magicians themselves—is both horrific and…sadly unsurprising. Do I think that rich and/or powerful people, eager to lead consequence-free lives, would turn over an actual human person from their own family if it meant that meant easy, constant, and more importantly pain-free access to the things they crave? If the past few years in the world of public health have taught us anything, it’s how willing people are to be bystanders in systems of oppression, particularly if it doesn’t inconvenience them in any way. So it would have been nice to see more perspectives here than the handful we got, most of which were very diametrically opposed. Surely, none of this would have happened without some shades of gray?
If anything, A Sleight of Shadows perhaps doesn’t spend enough time wrestling with the rotten underpinnings of magic—from the ways the corrupt systems of the Unseen World reinforce and even encourage the worst of humanity, the parts that are all to willing to hurt others in the name of making their own lives easier or even just a tad bit more frictionless. But for all that the events of this book are presented as an existential threat to the Unseen World that Sydney’s trying to save/remake, we don’t see very much of it beyond those she immediately interacts with, and several fan favorites from the first book are almost entirely absent from this sequel.
Don’t get me wrong: The gift of a return to this universe is lovely, and Howard’s prose is as sharp and spare as ever. But I can’t help but wonder what a version of this story that offered a little more balance to Sydney’s narrative (maybe in the form of more Mia?) might have been like.
A Sleight of Shadows is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.