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A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab

A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab
Book Name: A Darker Shade of Magic
Author: V. E. Schwab
Publisher(s): Tor Books
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: February 24, 2015

In a never-ending quest to find new and interesting fantasy fiction, I picked up A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab. I liked the idea of a magician that could walk between worlds while also walking the line between royal messenger and smuggler. Kell is Antari, one of the last magicians who can create doors between three different worlds, each with its own version of London. Kell serves the royal family of Red London, taking royal correspondence between the kings of the other Londons; White and Grey. But long ago there was a fourth world, Black London, consumed by magic. To protect themselves from Black London’s fate, the worlds were forced to seal themselves off, meaning that only people like Kell could get from one to the other. Kell also uses his royally sanctioned trips to run a smuggling operation, carrying items from one world to the next, despite this being treason. When he unknowingly smuggles an artifact salvaged from Black London and brings it to his own world, he exposes his beloved city—and himself—to its corrupted magic.

The setting—the four Londons and how magic works in each—at times seemed to be the actual main character of the novel. In fact, Kell describes magic as being alive, though not at all like a human being, and this ends up being key to the story’s climax. Each London has its own identity, and I especially liked the contrast between Red and White London. White, traditionally the color of the good guys, is instead a faded city ruled by the cruel twins, Astrid and Athos Dane. It’s a sinister place, and despite being one of the most powerful magicians alive, Kell dreads going there. Then there is his home, Red London, a city literally the color of blood but portrayed as being well-off and peaceful. But Kell knows that underneath the happy appearance there are darker parts of the city. You get the feeling throughout the novel that Red London is hiding something.

I really enjoyed the way magic was integrated into the setting, and how both the magic system and setting tied into the plot. Magic is part of each world’s identity, deciding which world is peaceful and powerful, and which world is falling to chaos. Sometimes magic in fantasy novels can feel like an add-on, just there because it’s cool rather than being an actual part of the plot. This novel doesn’t suffer from that, and I think that the world building is its strongest feature.

But what about the characters? Here is where the novel falters, but not so much that I disliked it. Kell is a precious commodity now that the worlds are closed, and he has served the King and Queen of Red London for as long as he can remember—literally, because on his arm is a magic sigil used to erase his childhood memories. He has no idea where he got it or why, and this secret isn’t revealed in this novel which means this is probably planned as a series. Despite growing up as part of the royal family, if not an actual member of it, Kell routinely breaks the law with his smuggling. One of the opening scenes shows him bringing an item from Red London into Grey, trading it for a simple music box. This scene sets up both his character (good humored, a little arrogant, reckless and he knows it) as well as opens up one of the novel’s themes: the desire to experience something different. Growing up in a world of magic, the intricacies of a mechanical music box bring Kell joy.

This theme is further explored in the novel’s other main character, Lila, who is probably the weakest character in the book. Rather than being one stereotype, she is a combination of stereotypes: a tough, no-nonsense girl who dresses like a man to pickpocket the rich while dreaming of a better life filled with adventure on the open sea. I think what made me dislike her was that she’s predictable. As soon as she hit the page I knew she’d be kissing Kell by the middle of the novel. She possesses strange magic that no one understands, and of course she steals the stone from Black London out of Kell’s coat, despite no one else being able to figure out his many, many magical pockets. But that’s not to say the character is without redemption, and she did have some interesting scenes in the novel. Soon after they meet she creates a sword using the stone from Black London despite Kell telling her not to. But when she realizes that Kell’s warnings were right and the magic is tainted, rather than assuming she can handle it, she tosses it away. I did not see that coming, and moments like that make me think that if this really does become a series, Lila might get fleshed out into a much more enjoyable character to read.

The novel’s primary antagonists are Athos and Astrid Dane, who rule White London. It’s established early on that they’re evil, malicious, and seriously messed up. Theirs is a city where only the strongest rule, but it’s also dying, and they do what they must to survive. But they are not sympathetic villains. There is no liking these two, and other than their loyalty to one another they don’t seem to have any redeeming qualities. Their interactions with Kell are great though, because they pose a real, believable threat to him. The story emphasizes that despite being so powerful Kell lacks their brutality and cunning. Kell is overall a good person, whereas they are killers. There were times in this novel where I wasn’t sure who would survive their conflict.

Overall the setting and plot are woven together well to create a strong story premise, and the characters, for the most part, create an interesting read. The writing itself is very good, with good pacing and no needless description or fluff. If there is a sequel, I’ll pick it up, just to see how Kell deals with the fall-out from his actions in this one.


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