A Darker Shade of Magic | V. E. Schwab
There are four Londons. Red London is the healthy empire, Grey London is the city without magic, White London is the starving world and Black London is sealed off, consumed by dark magic. Kell, is an Antari, one of the few people granted passage between the different Londons to pass on messages between the royal families. Nothing else is allowed, so when he agrees to smuggle over a powerful stone he finds himself right in the centre of trouble across the Londons.
This book has everything an urban fantasy should; a dark history, magic and excellent world building. From the opening pages it’s clear how the Londons work, how magic used to exist across all the Londons and how the doors between worlds were sealed off. We learn about the rare Antari, a dying breed of blood magicians who exist in a world full of elemental magic. However, although both of these types of magic exist, I didn’t feel like the magical system itself was fully explained. So whilst there are questions about the nature of magic running through the book – How should we treat magic? As an equal or something to conquer? – the lines between established magical knowledge and potential new revelations were never distinguished enough for me.
A Darker Shade of Magic follows Kell as he is performing his duty travelling between Londons. His position as an Antari paired with his bending of the rules (he slips trinkets between the Londons) makes him a good character to follow and introduce readers to the world, if not the most interesting character in the book. I would save that title for Lila Bard our other main character. She’s a young girl from Grey London, who has survived thus far as a pickpocket and gets mixed up with the affairs of the four Londons. With ambitions to be a pirate, she is delightful and plays the unconventional female trope well without falling into the trap of it feeling preformative.
‘I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.’ – Lila Bard
Each London has a distinct ruler reflecting on how prosperous each city is. In Grey London the mad King George rules. Red London has the benign Maresh family in power. White London has the ruthless siblings Astrid and Athos who have taken the throne by force. Although these latter characters sit comfortably in the realm of evil, I wanted them to make my skin crawl. Instead their characterisation seems to rely on readers’ experience of similar characters. Plot is favoured over character work and there are certain moments that feel a bit like papering over patches. This is even the case with Lila and Kell with whom we spend the most time. For example Kell is described to feel a little like a tool to the royal family, which may fit his character, but comes a bit out of the blue.
The plot is highly entertaining, moving at a fast pace, slipping between Londons, each with its unique set of dangers. Lila is introduced early on and we don’t have to wait long for Kell and Lila’s paths to cross and keep crossing which is deeply satisfying. Schwab also breaks the chapters up by showing the effects of the black stone, smuggled between Londons, wreaking havoc in the background showing how dangerous it is and maintaining a source of tension in the book about when it is going to catch up with Kell and Lila.
I knew from the opening lines that even if I wasn’t fully on board with the plot of the book, I would enjoy it nonetheless. Simply put Schwab is an excellent writer with a creative and compelling writing style.
Kell wore a very peculiar coat.
It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was of course, impossible.
She gets the balance right; adding exposition in throughout the book, dipping fluidly into characters pasts, picking out their histories and personalities. She’s also one of the rare authors who produces interesting similes. Her descriptions are often slow and beautiful, not lazy. For example, she dedicates a whole two-page chapter to describing the effect of black magic on a soldier and it is glorious. I do feel like there was a line or two in there that felt like it needed a closer edit as reading them several times didn’t make the meaning any clearer, but this was few and far between.
Overall, I really did enjoy this book and it is one that can almost be read as a standalone (if you don’t mind a couple of loose threads). I loved the writing and the setting of the Londons and the world building in general. The book needed to perhaps slow down a little to develop certain character traits better. I think the problems I had with both character depth and the magical system will be resolved if I continue reading as by default, we’ll have more of a chance to see it and clarify things.
Have you read A Darker Shade of Magic? What do you think? Let’s Chat!