Shades of Magic: Night of Knives
Enrica Eren Angiolini (colors), Andrea Olimpieri (inks), V. E. Schwab (writing), Budi Setiawan (lineart), Rob Steen (lettering)
October 29th, 2019
Full stop: The Steel Prince comics are a joy to read. I’m speaking with a little bit of bias here; I devoured the Shades of Magic trilogy and I’m ever hungry for more story from the Four Londons. As we know in comics, though, that sort of bias isn’t always a benefit. It’s easy for a comic to fail to live up to its source material, and sometimes such an adaptation will even highlight flaws in that source material, to the detriment of the whole. I’m pleased to say that just isn’t the case in Shades of Magic: Night of Knives.
Fresh off of his defeat of the Pirate Queen, young prince Maxim Maresh is in the process of establishing his reputation in the near-lawless town of Verose. As Maxim states in the beginning of this volume, the soldiers stationed here are considered the dregs of the Arnesian Empire. Now, having proven his willingness to fight and sleep alongside them, Maxim has taken it upon himself to teach them, to train them. It’s a difficult balance, and several of the soldiers don’t take to it well; as one says, “You cannot be their better and their equal.”
It’s the kind of delicious interpersonal drama I eat up. Maxim only wants what’s best for the soldiers under his command; he wants to train them to survive, even to thrive. But his privilege is a barrier; as one of the guard, Isra, told him in the first volume, she marked him as a royal by not just his bearing and speech, but by the way he fights. Being a royal is part of who he is—it affects his decisions and his actions in ways he’s not even capable of seeing. He charges into conflicts heedless of his own death, proclaiming that if he’s killed, the entire might of the Arnesian Empire will respond. He’s not wrong, but he still doesn’t understand how that’s a problem—the soldiers under his command have no such insurance, no such posthumous glory to rely on. So what does a foolhardy young noble do? He decides to enter a shady magical test where the stakes are life-and-death as a means of proving himself.
It’s clever work on the part of author V. E. Schwab to recognize this flaw in the character she’s created and to navigate a way to bring the character up against that flaw. The test is purely magical; there’s not a person or a force for the Empire to go after if Maxim fails, as when he fought the Pirate Queen. There is only his skill and his pride to contend with. It’s furthermore a testament to Schwab’s skill that this narrative is so elegantly told through comics. With a considerably lower on-page word count, she still makes every line of dialogue sing, every bit of plot feel right at home. Shades of Magic: Night of Knives tugs at plot threads from the first Steel Prince volume without tying them off completely, but does so in a way that’s satisfying, leaving the story open for more. I’m as hungry for a third volume of Steel Prince as I am for the upcoming Shades of Magic sequel trilogy.
The art team here is a significant factor in that. While the second volume has changed primary artists from Andrea Olimpieri to Budi Setiawan, they have complementary enough styles that Shades of Magic: Night of Knives still imbues the city of Verose with that dirty, dangerous feel of a crime-ridden town. Setiawan’s storytelling is top notch here; panel arrangements flow, and the depictions of magic within them are fantastic to behold. It’s notable too that the transition from Olimpieri and Setiawan is almost imperceptible; I reread the first volume of Steel Prince before I started Night of Knives, and while the styles are different, there’s a favor to both of them of hard angles in anatomy and dramatic pacing that are very stylistically complementary, both to each other and to the story itself. Hard angles for hard characters. It might be easy to attribute some of that to Olimpieri’s inking help with chapters two through four of this volume, but Setiawan inked his own work in chapter one, and it still holds true.
Of course, a strong visual identity isn’t just down to linework and inking, and colorist Enrica Eren Angiolini returns for this volume, her work as strong as before. She balances the murky depths of night with the glow of sorcery in a way that is, well… magical. She clads Maxim in bright, primary colors that make him seem like a beacon amongst the soldiers and other common folk around him; to see him dressed so brightly is to understand the resentment of those characters. She’s deft with skin tones too—the Arnesian Empire is ruled by a family of color, most of the significant characters are of color, and careful attention is paid to this.
That brings us to the elephant in the room: the lettering. Despite that ominous opener, I want to stress that I think that Rob Steen’s work here is above reproach! The typeface used here is a considered choice; it’s not quite a serif, but it hints at it, striking a balance between something with a more modern feel and, say, that font Marvel loves to use for their Asgardians. It feels powerful and dignified, and it suits both the world and the royal nature of the story’s main character. Additionally, there’s a fabulous bit of SFX work that Steen provides, wherein the sound of an explosion comprises the entire background of one panel. This is a tried and true trick in comics, but Steen goes a step further, making the edges of this effect deliberately blurry and indistinct. It conveys that echoing, less precise rumble of a loud sound heard in the distance. I found myself stopping to just appreciate that.
The trouble, though, is with the review copy I was provided with. This is obviously a very specific, very niche complaint that won’t matter to standard readers, but when lettering looks like this in a review copy:
It makes it very hard to appreciate the actual work being done. Steen is turning in phenomenal work here, and it’s hard for me to tell people about it when his work is undercut by the very company he’s doing it for. I have to scale up pages to an excess of 400% resolution to get a proper sense of the work being done, and while it’s nice that I can do that thanks to the way Adobe renders text in PDFs, even then I’m still looking at messy, jagged edges:
Titan, do better!
This complaint aside, I can’t recommend Shades of Magic: Night of Knives enough. As the introductory page indicates, Schwab has spun an entire trilogy of comic miniseries out of a single paragraph of Maxim’s exploits found in the original Shades of Magic trilogy, and it’s a thrill not only to see those events fleshed out, but to be given such a satisfying visual presentation of the world they occur in. I can’t wait for next year’s The Rebel Army.