Cookie Cutter: An Analysis on the works of V.E. Schwab

Lovina J. Paje
March 26, 2024

An introduction 

After I discovered A Darker Shade of Magic in high school, I’d become fascinated with V.E. Schwab’s work. Since then, I think I’ve read quite a few of her books. The ones I’ll be discussing in this essay are listed below.

  • Shades of Magic trilogy (A Darker Shade of Magic, A Gathering of Shadows, A Conjuring of Light
  • Villains duology (Vicious, Vengeance
  • Monsters of Verity duology (This Savage Song, Our Dark Duet
  • The Near Witch 
  • The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (to which I will refer to as The Invisible Life or Addie LaRue)
  • Gallant 

This analysis does contain spoilers for the works listed above. 

In my Gallant review, I explain that my gripe with the novel is the writing style and messy plot. However, a bigger reason why I rated it so poorly was because I have seen these characters and I daresay, this story, over and over. 

V.E. Schwab’s bibliography is extensive. According to her Wikipedia page (and my expert counting skills) she has 31 titles to her name across the children’s fiction, science fiction and fantasy genres. Truthfully, that is quite impressive and she does have the accolades to prove that she’s seasoned in her craft. However, I find it rather disappointing that across the ten titles I’ve read, they exhibit similar characters, plotlines and tropes. By the time I finished Gallant, I was disappointed that I hadn’t seen anything different to what she’d shown me before. 

The male characters: pale skin, dark curly hair and very few distinguishing features 

In Gallant, when Olivia Prior first meets her cousin, Matthew Prior, he is presented to us as standoffish. The first impressions aren’t great and we are left sympathising with Olivia, as her only known family doesn’t even want to connect with her. 

You might be wondering why that’s so. After all, the circumstances of Matthew’s behaviour aren’t exactly far-fetched. He’s witnessed previous family members dying from the same fate inside the house of Gallant. It makes sense that he isn’t happy to see Olivia because she’s just as likely to die a terrible death, too. He’s adamant about wanting to get rid of her to prevent that from happening. In the end, they do warm up to each other and Olivia gets the family she’s always yearned for.

This isn’t what frustrated me. It was the fact that I’d read about Matthew before. Albeit, he looks slightly different in V.E. Schwab’s other books but he’s there, all the same. He is the tenth pale-skinned, dark curly-haired character I’ve read from V.E. Schwab. By the time I garnered Matthew’s appearance and spiteful attitude, I was already rolling my eyes. I’d argue that I’ve seen this dynamic before, a dark, brooding male in the presence of a woman who just wants to connect with him (whether platonically or romantically), I have seen this before. 

We have. . . 

Holland from the Shades of Magic trilogy: 

Tall, pale with dark hair. One eye is wholly black, while the other is a stark green. He is one of the three Antari. He’s from White London, the London that is quite literally deprived of magic and therefore, any colour and vibrancy. He’s dying, painfully and slowly and he’s a cynic in a world that’s taken everything from him. When Holland first meets Kell, Kell constantly reminds him of his naivety and he isn’t very nice to Lila, either. Eventually, Holland does die, a slow, painful death, and we do sympathise with him. He was a man who suffered years of subordination to the Dane Twins and wanted to be laid to rest. 

August Flynn from the Monsters of Verity duology: 

Pale, with dark curly hair and grey eyes. Not human but Sunai, a monster who helps cleanse the souls of sinners with a tune of his violin. August is nearly not as cynical as Holland, or even as cold as Matthew. He is kind-hearted and desires to be wholly human. His father runs the Flynn Task Force across the city and he is forced to reap the souls of these sinners, though he would rather not. He meets Kate Harker, the daughter of his father’s archnemesis and they form an unlikely alliance. 

Cole from The Near Witch:

Also tall, pale, and has dark curly hair. He’s the stranger to the town of Near and he’s gentle and kind in a similar way to August. He ‘fades like smoke’, which resembles the way the ghouls in Gallant are there until you try to touch them. The townspeople distrust his presence and Lexi (the main character and love interest) plays a dangerous game communicating with this stranger. In the end, he’s the one who helps her discover where all the missing children end up.  

Luc from Addie LaRue:

Surprise, surprise. Luc, the devil who curses Addie LaRue also has dark, curly hair and Henry has a similar appearance, too. Luc is the one who grants Addie the freedom and immortality at the cost of being remembered by her lovers, or anyone else she meets. Luc . . . he’s not the nicest character. My opinions on Addie LaRue are similar to that of our 2023 president, Erin and she sums it up perfectly here. Unfortunately, the narrative was so unremarkable to me that I can’t even remember details about his personality . . . 

Death in Gallant:

An actual incarnation of Death, a mass of dark shadows with borrowed bones from the dead relatives of the Prior family.

They are all so similar that it irks me to see this same pale, curly dark-haired boy be copied and pasted from one narrative to the next. His purpose is to be a cynic like Holland or Matthew; or meek and kind-hearted like August and Cole; or perhaps he’s the devil, reminding you at every corner about your morality like Death and Luc. If not these things, he is the love interest of our female protagonist (which I will get into next). August and Kate, Cole and Lexi, Luc and Addie, and Addie and Henry. 

Each character is multifaceted in their own right. Just like us in the real world, their attitudes are influenced by their contexts, and they all exist in their separate narratives. Despite this, there just isn’t enough to distinguish them from one another. By the time I got to The Invisible Life and Gallant I had sworn I’d seen these characters before. Clearly, I have. 

As you can see, not only do these characters physically look more or less the same, but they exhibit extremely similar traits that all seem to be influenced by each other. They exist in completely different worlds! All with different laws of nature and different rules that govern them. Yet, I am finding the same man across all these stories. It’s frustrating. And unfortunately, the same can be said for our female protagonists. 

The female protagonists: denouncing traditional femininity, escaping the patriarchy and decisions dictated by a man

In comparison, Schwab’s female protagonists look different (i.e., their physical appearances do not resemble each other). However, what bothers me about Schwab’s female protagonists is similar to what bothers me about her male protagonists. I am witnessing the same arc over and over, and there is very little that distinguishes these protagonists from each other – I’ve read this before. 

I want to preface this section of my analysis by first explaining that V.E. Schwab is a woman. She is writing and publishing in a male-dominated genre (science fiction and fantasy). No doubt, her context as a woman in the publishing industry has, and will continue to be an obstacle in her career. She does explain this at length here, detailing her experiences of sexism in the publishing space. The nature of our society is built on the patriarchy, Schwab and many other women can and will experience sexism. It can and will hinder their opportunities and I do not discredit that her gender identity has made her experiences difficult.

Moreover, I will make it very clear (and have made this point numerous times across different reviews and articles I’ve written for In the Margin), that my personal context, as a woman of colour, has always meant that I experience the intersection of both sexism and racism. Fortunately or unfortunately, I have experienced racism more than I have experienced sexism. Personally, I have been racialised more times than people have perceived me as a woman. Consequently, this has always created a disconnect between me and the subject matter of literature written by white women, specifically. 

Schwab writes about women who denounce traditional Western femininity. Whether this be the way she dresses, the way she is expected to act, or whether she must take up a maternal role in her family or wider society. I do not have an issue with these women, these female protagonists. These protagonists are desperate to escape the shackles of patriarchy – and they do. I do not have an issue with these characters and their femininity or womanhood. I have an issue with the privilege they hold as white women, and how Schwab’s writing fails to account for that. 

Addie from The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

For context, Addie LaRue is historical fiction. Addie was born in 17th-century France and is more or less destined to marry a man and live a quiet, subservient life with him until she dies. Her desire for freedom against this patriarchal idea is what leads her to make a deal with the devil. Simply, she is immortal – but no one will ever remember her, until one day, someone does. Despite my gripes with the writing, Addie is white and so is Schwab. V.E. Schwab writes Addie’s experiences as though this is the worst thing she, or anyone else, could experience. As Addie traverses through the centuries, she meets more men, and the cycle continues. 

Meanwhile, throughout this period of modern history, the transatlantic slave trade is happening. The roots of colonisation are taking place. In this time frame when Addie is so desperate to escape this life, you will be damned if you think I am pitying and weeping over a white woman who simply doesn’t want to get married. The writing exposes Schwab’s white privilege, and I struggled to connect with Addie as a protagonist for these reasons. 

Delila ‘Lila’ Bard from Shades of Magic:

I’ve read the Shades of Magic trilogy twice. Once when it first came out (mid-2010s) and second, in early 2021. My second read was tainted with a bit of nostalgia, so on both counts, I didn’t exactly have an issue with Lila’s development. She lives in Grey London, what we know as our real-life England. From what I can remember from my Modern History class and Communications subjects, 14th to 18th century England was sexist and didn’t exactly expect women to amount to much aside from being housewives and indulging in gossip.

However, Lila contradicts these expectations. She keeps her hair short, which is typically perceived as masculine. She also cross-dresses as a man, and steals from shops and other men, so she can survive the slums of London. Lila does not succumb to the romance she feels for Alucard or Kell. Although, she does fall victim to Alucard’s charm (as most of the characters do), and by the end of the trilogy, she does end up with Kell. 

Additionally, Lila’s defiance against the patriarchy is evident in the way she regulates her emotions. Spoiler alert: in A Gathering of Shadows, someone close to Lila dies, and she denies the grief she feels for them. In Lila’s mind, grief equals attachment, it equals tenderness, it equals fondness. These can be perceived as typically feminine traits and Lila actively chooses to quash them, as a reminder of everything else she’s sacrificed. 

Lexi from The Near Witch:

A disclaimer: the description I am about to provide will be quite lacklustre. The Near Witch (or TNW as I will now call it), was Schwab’s debut novel that went out of print. She’d re-released it some time ago, and I’d read it quite fast and unfortunately, none of the finer details have stuck with me. I’ve tried to read up on it online with other people’s reviews but there isn’t much around so please bear with me on this section of the analysis. 

For context, Lexi lives in the small town of Near. It’s a village of sorts, a small one, where everyone knows everyone. The women stay home to cook and clean. The men go out into town to work and sell their goods. There are children, of course. However, there are no strangers in the town of Near. When the wind calls at night, you must not listen. 

One day, there is a stranger who appears in the town of Near and children start disappearing. Or at least that’s what the blurb of the book says. As a girl, Lexi is expected to stay at home – she’s certainly not expected to leave her house and figure out what’s going on. The moment that did it for me, was when Lexi started sneaking behind her father’s back, putting on his too-big shoes and going out exploring the world to figure out who this stranger was, and where the children were disappearing to. What irks me, again, is the same narrative, in nearly the same context. Small town, girl who isn’t allowed to move around because she’s a girl, breaking the gender norms and stereotypes by doing things that are typically male, and we go on and on. 

I think what makes me upset about these character arcs is that femininity is almost reduced to the role us women have to play in society. It makes it feel as though Schwab’s writing wants to denounce the patriarchy but has almost played into the idea that femininity is bad, and there isn’t strength to our typically ‘feminine’ traits.

Across these different books, each of these characters live in different realities governed by different laws of nature, and other societal rules and yet, they are all going through the exact same character arc. I understand that arcs can be universal across the science fiction and fantasy genre. You can take The Hero’s Journey and apply to nearly everything. However, the main issue I have with Schwab’s work is that she’s written the same character arcs across . . . well, ten of the different books that I’ve read. Their personalities, contexts, and perspectives are nearly identical and it gets tiresome and boring to read about the same thing, over and over again. I know Schwab cannot change her context – and I don’t expect her to. I just want to see something different

Character development and story progression: a blueprint approach 

VE takes too long to write things, a common criticism in her work. Gallant was arduous and so was Addie LaRue for similar reasons. On my reread of ADSOM in early 2021, I saw a similar pattern in the latter 2 books where essentially, nothing happened until the final acts. VE spends too much time writing nothing and doesn’t spend enough time writing something. 

There are wonderful stories to be explored, it’s just poor execution (something Erin and I say in our own reviews) and I think it’d be good to maybe even get a different editor or try out a different genre to really hone in on her strengths – fantasy just doesn’t seem the place for flowery descriptions that add no value to the story and for nothing to happen.

Mental health and expectations

In the past, Schwab has been quite vocal about her mental health on her social media and consequently, how this affects her writing. I don’t think my criticisms would be entirely founded without mentioning this. I remember reading a post on her Instagram about the Shades of Magic trilogy, and how, when she’d first started writing in the Sci-fi/Fantasy genre, she had shortened her name from Victoria Schwab to V.E. Schwab to blend in with its largely male author base. She’d even been denied spots on panels because there were people who couldn’t quite believe that a woman was capable of writing the stories she was creating. 

Whether it’s the fault of her editors or otherwise, it is clear that Schwab’s lack of confidence in her writing influences the work she produces. Like I mentioned in the introduction, I know that V.E. Schwab is capable of creating these wonderful worlds with charismatic characters, it’s likely her biggest selling point but alas, there are times like with The Near Witch and Gallant and The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue that these concepts and ideas fall short. 

The good stuff 

Despite my extensive complaints, there are things I have enjoyed about Schwab’s body of work. 

I was first drawn to A Darker Shade of Magic, well because of its title. At the time of its release (and we’re talking nearly 8 years ago so we can give my younger self some slack for not having the extensive reading experience she has now), I thought it was the height of sci-fi/fantasy fiction. I mean, three parallel Londons, the ability to traverse through them? The first book gave me enough that I was hoping there’d be more — and there was. 

Vicious and Vengeance, as part of the Villains duology is the perfect example of grey-area morality. What is right? What is wrong? Where does it start? Where does it end? Victor and Eli make excellent antagonists and they compliment each other perfectly. The two are constantly trying to outdo each other with their scientific advancements that they end up seeing who can play God the best. It’s messy, it’s madness and I’d enjoyed every second reading about it. It’s also an excellent take on humanity and the extent to which we are predisposed to good and evil. 

This Savage Song and Our Dark Duet, as part of the Monsters of Verity duology remains one of my favourite series I’d read in my teenhood. I used to be a music student and a self-taught pianist who has always been fascinated by music theory. I mean, look. You have a monster who literally uses a violin to reap souls around the city. Are you kidding me? That’s fantastic! I love that idea. Plus, I’m always a sucker for romance and I enjoyed the Romeo-and-Juliet-esque thing that was going on between Kate Harker and August Flynn. 

The Near Witch was okay, a little slow. I daresay that I understood why it had originally gone out of print during its initial release but I digress. It is Schwab’s debut novel and perhaps her writing wasn’t as developed as some may say it is now. The thing I liked most about The Near Witch is that it felt like a bedtime story brought to life; the kind that parents tell their children to warn them about the darkness and the night. It also ended with a very sweet romance between Lexi and Coal, and I am a sucker for a good love story.  

I wasn’t a fan of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. A deal with the devil, a girl who will never be remembered, and a boy who does remember her. It’s a fascinating concept, though the execution was disappointing. I can barely remember anything that happened in all those 448 pages and it was mostly unremarkable to me, much like Addie herself. Though, if you do want a deeper discussion about the good and the bad, I recommend this article here. I also agree with the valuable commentary Erin and Liam provide in their discussion, here. There is much to say about this highly anticipated book but I will leave it to them to say exactly what I’m thinking. 

Therefore, Schwab has proven time and time again that she is capable of creating interesting characters and fascinating worlds, with concepts that her readers enjoy. It’s likely one of the main reasons people read her work. Hell, it’s one of the main reasons I have consistently read her work. People see the potential in Schwab’s work, and that’s why they support her writing. 

The verdict 

To put it colloquially, fortunately, or unfortunately, it is well-known in the LitSoc Lore that I have a bone to pick with Schwab’s work. After I had reread the Shades of Magic trilogy in my early adulthood, my opinions of her work thereafter changed dramatically. 

I do not think V.E. Schwab has bad writing, nor do I think her ideas are bad. I’ve said it repeatedly: I think the way she executes her ideas needs to be refined a little bit more. She might even excel in other genres such as short stories or poetry. There are lines and paragraphs within her work that I’ve found beautiful and I think there’s a lot of power in that kind of writing. 

Truthfully, if you did want something easy to digest, or a very simple introduction into the science fiction or fantasy genre, at the very least, I would recommend either the Villains duology or the Monsters of Verity duology. Both these series provide me with a healthy dose of nostalgia for all the sci-fi and fantasy I read as a teenager, and despite this lengthy analysis, these books have stayed with me the longest. After this extensive review, I think it’s worth your time to see it for yourself.