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Layered Londons Cake (A Gathering of Shadows)


A Gathering of Shadows

by V. E. Schwab

Publication: February 23, 2016

Genre: Fantasy

My rating: 5/5 stars

Spoilers: Possible minor for this book; possible major for book one

Review

This is the second book in Victoria Schwab's Shades of Magic trilogy. It's probably odd to review and feature the second book in a series of three, but I enjoyed this one more than the first and haven't read the last yet, so...that's why. In some ways (most notably the cliffhanger ending), A Gathering of Shadows suffers from "middle book" syndrome, but I felt it sustained most of the tension and fast pace introduced in the first book while allowing for more character growth. Further, the style and tone of the prose seemed more assured.

Most of this book's plot is focused around a magical competition called the Essen Tasch, or Element Games, that takes place in Red London. Both main characters (Lila and Kell) and the two background characters who get the most screentime (Rhy and Alucard) are involved with the planning and execution of the Games in various capacities. While the magic system in this trilogy is a variation on the classic elemental structure, I enjoyed the idea of the Games. There were enough subplots and background politics/drama to keep the conflict from seeming trivial, and a few antagonist-POV chapters kept the stakes high.

Witnessing character growth has remained one of the greatest draws of fantasy, and while Lila, Kell, and others were clearly mid-journey in their evolution, I appreciated seeing the ways in which they'd changed since the first book. Kell is angrier, more restless, and less naïve; Lila is finding in often-painful ways that her impulsive cockiness won't always see her to her goals.

The relationships between characters also evolved in this book, which I can't discuss much without spoiling things. I will say that I read a couple of reviews written by people who see the main romance in this series as "insta-love," and I disagree. I'd argue that while the characters experience attraction soon after meeting, it's more like instant curiosity mixed with a strong dash of lust than actual love. This is subjective, clearly, but I think insta-love applies to scenarios in which characters meet and will immediately make huge gestures or sacrifices for each other with the intent of locking in a long-term relationship. I've read...a lot of that. Too much. In this case, when the characters do huge, dramatic things, it's for purposes other than furthering their relationship.

My favorite aspect of this series is the worldbuilding, the concept of four Londons, parallel but separate. There was less realm-hopping in this book than the previous one, but the tighter focus on Red London in particular allowed for the development of that world's culture: language, politics, daily life, and more. The setting was as engaging as ever, and was therefore the inspiration for this month's book-related dessert!

Recipe: Layered Londons Cake

I did something a little different this month. Rather than develop a recipe for food that appeared in the Shades of Magic series, I came up with one that represents an aspect of the books. In part, that was because most of the "food" described in the series is actually just alcohol, but mainly it was a result of my fascination with the four Londons. I tried to choose flavors that worked with the necessary colors while also representing each world (and I picked English Breakfast tea instead of the more common Earl Grey for Gray London because the author loves one and hates the other.) It's a fairly involved recipe, but can be spread out over a couple of days.

Chocolate cake (Black London)

Ingredients

  • 1 cup flour

  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

  • 1 cup sugar

  • 1 tsp baking soda

  • 1/2 tsp baking powder

  • 1/2 tsp salt

  • 1 egg

  • 1/2 cup buttermilk

  • 1/2 cup warm water

  • 3 tbsp vegetable oil

  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

  • black food coloring

Instructions

Grease a loaf pan (or line with parchment paper). Preheat oven to 350° F. In a large mixing bowl, stir together flour, cocoa powder, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add eggs, buttermilk, water, vegetable oil, vanilla, and as much black food coloring as you like. Mix at medium speed until well combined (2-3 minutes). Pour into prepared pan and bake for 25 minutes. Cool for 15 minutes, then remove from pan and cool completely.

Almond cake (White London)

Ingredients

  • 1 1/4 cup cake flour

  • 1 1/4 tsp baking powder

  • 1/3 cup (5 tbsp) butter, softened

  • 1/2 cup sugar

  • 1/2 tsp almond extract

  • 2 egg whites

  • 1/2 cup milk

Instructions

Grease a loaf pan (or line with parchment paper). Preheat oven to 350° F. Stir together flour and baking powder in a small bowl. In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter, sugar, and almond extract with a hand mixer. Beat in the egg whites, then add half the flour mixture while mixing at low speed. Add the milk and mix to combine, then mix in the remaining flour. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 20 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes, then remove from pan and cool completely.

Strawberry-rose cake (Red London)

Ingredients

  • 1 cup + 2 tbsp flour

  • 1 tsp baking powder

  • 3 tbsp butter, softened

  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil

  • 1/2 cup sugar

  • 1/3 cup buttermilk

  • 1 egg + 1 yolk

  • 3 tbsp strawberry jam or strawberry juice

  • 1 tsp rose water

  • red food coloring, if desired

Instructions

Grease a loaf pan (or line with parchment paper). Preheat oven to 350° F. Stir together flour and baking powder in a small bowl. In a large mixing bowl, mix butter, vegetable oil, and sugar on medium. Add buttermilk, egg, strawberry jam/juice, rose water, and any desired food coloring; beat on medium-high for 2 minutes. Add flour mixture and mix just until combined, adding more food coloring if you want to deepen the shade of red. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 20 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes, then remove from pan and cool completely.

English Breakfast tea cake (Gray London)

Ingredients

  • 4 tbsp (half a stick) butter

  • 2 tbsp loose English Breakfast tea

  • 1 cup + 2 tbsp flour

  • 1 tsp baking powder

  • 3 tbsp vegetable oil

  • 1/2 cup sugar

  • 1/3 cup buttermilk

  • 1 egg + 1 yolk

  • black food coloring

Instructions

Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir in loose tea and cook over low heat for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and strain out tea leaves, pressing out as much butter as possible; discard tea leaves. Cool butter until solid but soft. Grease a loaf pan (or line with parchment paper). Preheat oven to 350° F. Stir together flour and baking powder in a small bowl. In a large mixing bowl, cream tea-infused butter, vegetable oil, and sugar. Add buttermilk, egg, and a small amount of food coloring and beat on medium-high for 2 minutes. Add flour mixture and mix just until combined, adding food coloring to make a grayish batter. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 20 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes, then remove from pan and cool completely.

Whipped cream frosting

Ingredients

  • 2 cups heavy/whipping cream

  • 1 tsp cream of tartar

  • 8 oz cream cheese, softened

  • 3/4 cup powdered sugar

  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

  • 1 tsp almond extract

Instructions

To large mixing bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer), add heavy cream and cream of tartar and beat until it holds a medium peak. Refrigerate. In another bowl, beat cream cheese, powdered sugar, and extracts until smooth. Add 1/3 (approximate is fine) of the whipped cream to the cream cheese mixture and stir until combined. Fold in remaining whipped cream. Chill until ready to use.

Assembly

Make and cool the four cake layers. Make the whipped cream frosting. (These can all be made a day or two in advance, covered/wrapped in plastic, and saved in the refrigerator for convenience.) Trim each layer of cake with a sharp knife so it's flat on top. Place the black cake layer on a plate and spread with a small amount of frosting. Follow it with the white layer, more frosting, the red layer, more frosting, and the gray layer. Apply a thin layer of frosting to the top and sides of the cake to seal in crumbs, then spread/decorate with the remaining frosting.

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