Bestselling novelist V.E. Schwab’s fantasy prose trilogy Shades of Magic is the starting point for her popular graphic novel trilogy, Shades of Magic: The Steel Prince. This month, Titan published The Rebel Army, the third volume of that trilogy.
The Rebel Army is set in the same world of magic as the prose series, a world where four different Londons exist in parallel. The main characters of the series are the smuggler and magician Kell and his companion Lila, a clever thief. The Rebel Army is the final book in the series and focuses on the younger years of the king and father figure Maxim Maresh. Schwab’s next novel, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, is due out in October.
PW talked to Schwab about her bringing her imagined world into a visual medium.
Shades of Magic is set in four worlds that are centered on London. How did you come up with that?
I wanted to write a portal fantasy, but I hate when a story starts with a map. Instead of four different landscapes, I had four different iterations of the landscape where society had different relationships to power: One where magic was forgotten, one where it thrived in balance with people, one where it was subjugated, and one where it went unchecked and consumed everything.
How do you make the world feel real without getting bogged down in details?
You have be very selective in details that can be indicators of greater concepts. For me personally, fashion and language are the two that really inform. Kell’s red coat or Lila’s black coat, these become shorthand that allow you to conjure up the character as you are reading. Fashion is not only a great visual shorthand but it’s also a societal indicator. Fashion reflects class, it reflects culture, it reflects insider/outsider delineations, royalty and commoner, the have and the have-not
When you look at a language, it’s used differently depending on where you are in the social strata, depending on how comfortable you are. Where is the line between people who feel like they don’t belong, like Kell, and people who can belong anywhere, like Lila? Language is one of the best ways to immediately create a barrier, but a porous barrier, because language is a thing that can be learned. And so I think that fashion and language are two of my chosen elements.
When a novel is adapted into a comic, readers sometimes say the drawn characters don’t look like the characters in their heads. How did you avoid that?
You can tell as an author if you did it well based on the fan art. Kell always looks exactly the same. Hundreds of different people imagining him based on the words, and yet he always looks the same.
Did the fan art look like the pictures in your head?
Sometimes. Sometimes not at all, but that tells me I haven’t done my job well. In the earlier books there was a little bit too much flexibility in how the Maresh royal family was portrayed. Some people would think the Maresh looked more of Indian descent and others thought they were Black. At the time I was younger, and I believed that would allow more people to see themselves, when really I should have been highly specific about it. In not being specific I was inadvertently erasing the Maresh family’s race. That was something I really wanted to codify further when I did the graphic novels, that Maxim Maresh is Black.
Why did you give the Maresh family dark skin?\
When you are writing a book, whether it’s fantasy or realism, there will always be power dynamics. I wanted to modify the power dynamics away from race and sexuality. There are power dynamics in the magical world, but it’s more who has magic and who doesn’t, not the color of your skin. Fantasy gives you an incredible opportunity to shift what is default. I really wanted to create a world in which we didn’t have a hierarchy based on race.
You recently Tweeted “If I could remind writers of one thing, it would be this: for the vast majority of us, our careers will be defined not by a single book, but by a body of work.” Could you expand on that a bit?
I have written 18 novels, not including the graphic novels, so 21 [altogether], over the last 10 years, and I had a really slow growth. I had my debut novel in 2009. Almost nobody read it. I had my second novel in 2011. A few more people read it. My eighth novel was A Darker Shade of Magic, and that was the one people called me an overnight success for. I wish that publishing created more space for authors to create a body of work, rather than focusing on one single work. The reason my career is doing as well as it is isn’t because of A Darker Shade of Magic, it’s because I have 17 other books. What happens is people finish reading the Shades of Magic books and they say “What next?” and they go back down the line of my backlist, which I would not have if I had given up before A Darker Shade of Magic.
That’s great advice for anyone.
It’s so hard to follow. I have a book coming out later this year. This is a book I have been working on for a decade, and it is finally coming out this October. Do I want the biggest, most important book I have ever written to come out in a pandemic year? No. But it is, and I can only do what I can do, which is put everything into it and trust that people will find it.