A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab
Publisher: Titan Books
This is a spoiler-free review
Kell is one of the last travelers–magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes connected by one magical city.
There’s Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, and with one mad King–George III. Red London, where life and magic are revered–and where Kell was raised alongside Rhy Maresh, the roguish heir to a flourishing empire. White London–a place where people fight to control magic and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London. But no one speaks of that now.
Officially, Kell is the Red traveler, ambassador of the Maresh empire, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.
Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.
Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.*
Plot and Setting
A Darker Shade of Magic is not a perfect book, but it is an enjoyable one. I felt that it was more of a plot driven rather than character driven, which is not my usual preference. The plot, world building, and setting are fantastic. I loved the idea of the four Londons that are not mirrors of each other, but rather individual places linked by a name and the Thames. Red London, where Kell hails from, is a place where magic flourishes. Grey London, the setting that is the closest reflection of our world and where Leila Bard comes from, has no magic. White London is a brutal city where magic is scarce and what little remains is dominated by its citizens. Finally, the ominous Black London is a bit of a mystery.
Schwab sets the scene for these cities effectively without using a huge amount of space in the book, showing her strength as a writer. As Kell and Leila hop from city to city, you can really feel the colors and mood shining through. White London was my absolute favorite place in this book. A brutal, horrible place where the color is leached out of everything, it was such a unique take on London. I will say that I wish we got more of the background of each London — I feel like we didn’t get to know most of these places, their history, or the countries they’re located in very well. I’d love a series of novellas detailing daily life in each city.
I do wish there was a little more focus on the rules of the magic system. In fantasy, a magic system can do whatever you want, as long is it is governed by the rules you put in place. I’m not really sure what the limitations of magic are in this world, and I’d really like to learn more. This is just a personal preference, as I’m used to reading much longer fantasy books that go into what is probably too much detail about the rules governing magic.
I do feel that strong characterization was sacrificed for the sake of a tight plot – our heroes feel a little one dimensional. That being said, I liked Kell a lot. He doesn’t have a lot of substance yet, but I feel he will become very interesting as the series progresses. The fact is that we just don’t know much about him outside the direct events of the book. I’m fascinated by his past, how he came to his present position, and what the future holds for him. I hope that we get a deeper look at him as a person in the rest of the trilogy.
I have to admit that I really didn’t like Leila. As a friend put it, she just feels like a walking stereotype. You could have plucked her out of any number of fantasy books, I just don’t feel like there was anything that set her apart. She’s the short-haired, stubborn tomboy who survives by her wit and longs for adventure. Naturally she doesn’t wear dresses, because skirts only get in the way. I can think of three other books with pretty much this exact character off the top of my head right now, probably more if I had a chance to think longer. What bothered me most about her is that she fell into this incredibly tired trait for female characters:
Him: Don’t do that thing. It’s dangerous and you’ll get yourself or a bunch of other people killed.
Her: Fuck you, I’m stubborn and will do that thing anyway because I have absolutely no common sense.
Oh, that was a really bad idea. I shouldn’t have done that. Oh well, I wont apologise or learn anything from this. I’ll probably do something very similar five chapters from now.
This is always an absolute turn-off for me, particularly when it is used to show that a woman is ‘strong’. It just makes them come across as fools with no common sense. I hear Leila grows a lot in the next book, however, and I am cautiously optimistic. I do think Kell and Leila complement each other well, but they need more depth, growth, and focus.
The absolute best part of this book was Astrid, Queen of White London. She’s so deliciously evil. I loved that she made my skin crawl every time she was on the page. She suited White London so well and was just a great character overall.
While I have criticisms, I really enjoyed this book overall. It was a quick, fun, and unique read. I plan to read the remaining two books and am excited to see where this series goes next. I know the books get longer as the trilogy continues, and I think this is a good thing. I’d love more character development, a better understanding of the magic system, and a more in-depth look at each London.
Have you read A Darker Shade of Magic? What did you think?
*copy courtesy of Goodreads