A Darker Shade of Magic
by V.E. Schwab
Published February 24, 2015
400 pages, Tor Books
“‘As Travars,’ he said. Travel.” V. E. Schwab’s best selling adult fantasy, A Darker Shade of Magic, is the critically acclaimed debut of the Shades of Magic series. Dedicated to “the ones who dream of stranger worlds,” Schwab’s universe of multiple worlds, various Londons, and those who can travel between them is a brilliant novel of modern magic in a post-modern setting. While magic flourishes in some areas and crumbles in others, no one is safe, and the story of the parallel Londons has only just begun.
Kell Maresh is one of the last Antari, and is therefore one of the only people who can travel between parallel Londons—Red London, his home and where magic thrives, Grey London, where magic has died out long ago, White London, where a war over magic rages, and Black London, which is the reason that the doors between the parallel Londons had been sealed long ago. Along with his power comes a great temptation, however, and one Kell is unable to resist. Despite the risk of engaging in the criminal activity, especially as a trusted member of the royal family in Red London, Kell is a smuggler. When a deal goes sour, he flees to Grey London, where he meets Lila Bard, a proud thief that not only robs him, but then demands to be brought back to his world for the adventure her own lacks. And adventure she finds, as the two are forced on the run through multiple Londons, dark magic not only at their backs, but at their fingertips.
Since its publication in 2015, this book has been one I’ve wanted to read for years. Though I just discovered that it is classified as an adult novel, not the young-adult one I had expected, it could easily move between the two if a few choice words were omitted here and there. Despite the genre mix-up, however, A Darker Shade of Magic was nothing short of an amazing whirlwind of magic, chase, banter, and coats with many different sides.
To start with the smaller amazements: the world. The idea of parallel Londons, much less four of them, is an extravagant idea made simple. Schwab took only what was needed, and did herself a favor in doing so. By focusing primarily on the various Londons and not the worlds beyond, she effectively kept the mind where it needed to be, and sped up the pacing so it didn’t wander. The simple, elemental—with the addition of bone as an element—magic system was a smart move, as nothing was conjured that wasn’t already understood. The perspective changes were a beautiful sort of simple as well—we simply were where we needed to be. Schwab seemed to make it a point that we wouldn’t watch if nothing was happening. She placed me in the action each time, whether it was a different London or just a different room. In this, it was easy to keep moving forward, as I was never ripped out of an abundance of action for something monotonous. Despite this simplicity, however, the use of language was the most complicated part of the novel. As different Londons had different languages, words that were far from the vernacular were used frequently, and Kell’s own Antari magic required commands that seemed to be another language altogether. That being said, I did read the collector’s edition of the novel that included an appendix with a glossary of each of the languages used, so this wasn’t remotely a barrier and most likely wouldn’t have been without the glossary either. Truly, the only drawback to this novel that I encountered was that sometimes I caught myself skimming a few pages at a time but, even so, I was still able to pick up on the various details of the world and what was occurring in the sections that I glossed over.
Now, to character, which was my absolute favorite part of the novel. To put it in a cliche, these characters were a breath of fresh air. Kell, as our main character, was altogether so similar and yet so different than any other male character in this realm of fantasy. I cannot deny that he fit a few tropes and definitely had a bit of a brooding air to him that having one solid-black eye didn’t help, but he was so very interesting as a character. His desire to protect, to save, and to set things right even as a smuggler is heartwarming, even if he frowns quite often. Kell wields so much power, yet likes to remain unseen for as long as possible. He has been adopted by the royal family of Red London and coined the “black-eyed prince,” yet seems to only care about his status and wealth for the sake of his “brother,” Prince Rhy. Kell’s entire personality and lifestyle continually contrast each other, pushing and pulling and shaping his morals as the story progresses. It was compelling on its own, almost to the point where I could read an entire book about Kell going about his life and I wouldn’t need the rest of this plot, but only almost.
Next, to the beauty of Lila Bard. As a strong female protagonist, I wouldn’t dare dishonor her by calling her anything other than Kell’s counterpart as a main character. Lila stands out as the cross-dressing thief she is, but the true wonder about her is how she percieves others, as well as the world around her. Because, as wonderful as it is, Lila is smart. She’s clever. Kell is the same, of course, but the mind games of this novel is where Lila truly stands out. As someone from Grey London, where magic is nonexistent, she is able to adapt to her surroundings, especially when those surroundings are Kell. The two work together beautifully. See, where Kell is calm, protective, and usually morally upright, Lila lives in a sort of grey-area of violence and murder. The two aren’t necessarily opposites, but they play off each other so well that no scene is devoid of a back-and-forth that is so easy to love. However, it’s Lila’s desire for something else, something more, that truly makes her character as interesting as it is, because don’t we all feel that way, sometimes?A Darker Shade of Magic was surprising, in its own way. It’s one of those books that is quick, compelling, and nothing like you would expect it to be based on the synopsis on the inside cover. It had me excited to read and, even when it was over, I found myself wanting to stay in Kell and Lila’s world for just a little while longer. Out of five, I’d easily rate this a four and a half, and would absolutely recommend this to anyone that was a fan of fantasy, or even just someone who enjoys fast-paced storytelling and compelling characters. Truly, A Darker Shade of Magic is a novel that opened a new world—one of multiple Londons, magic that smelled like flowers, and Kell’s coat that has more than two sides and that I am just dying to own.