Novel: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab | Goodreads
Release Date: February 24, 2015
Publisher: Tor Books
Kell is one of the last Antari—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black.
Kell was raised in Arnes—Red London—and officially serves the Maresh Empire as an ambassador, traveling between the frequent bloody regime changes in White London and the court of George III in the dullest of Londons, the one without any magic left to see.
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.
After an exchange goes awry, Kell escapes to Grey London and runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She first robs him, then 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.
So this is a title that’s been floating around for a while, especially since Victoria Schwab got a hugely publicized and massive book deal a little while back. Although it has praise comparing it to The Night Circus, one of my favorite books and one I can never find any competitors for, I avoided it for awhile because in full disclosure, Victoria Schwab is a hit-or-miss author for me.
I thought The Archived was pretty boring. On the flip side, I loved the atmosphere of The Near Witch. But enough people have gushed about this series and I’ve gotten a lot better this year about going with the hype.
The first scene immediately captured my attention, with the whimsical details that make or break a high fantasy for me. The turning of different colored coats to accurately depict the cultural distinctions between different Londons, for the one privileged enough to travel between them. Loved.
Kell is spirited but quiet, lurking on the outskirts of royalty with his own agenda. Although technically a member of the royal family in Red London, his adoptive status and magical ability mark him as separate, as property, although they insist that’s not the case. While his duty is that of a courier shuttling letters between parallel Londons, he gets his thrills from the smuggling action he does on the side — trinkets and dirt — although his brother Rhy repeatedly warns him that transference is forbidden.
Each London has its own quirks, just as each ruler does.
In Gray London, King George relishes the scent of magic. The Reds have luxury. White London has bloodthirsty royals who clawed their way to the top with brute magical force.
It admittedly took awhile for the main conflict of the Londons to become apparent and smooth. It felt like a book I could slow down and savor, but never got too boring.
Although he sees multiple Londons, Kell never actually sees the world beyond them — and neither do we. It feels distinctly historical and so there’s no version that closely mimics our reality.
The world-building is elaborate and leisurely. The dialogue is snappy, with each character filling beloved — and truthfully familiar — roles. V.E. Schwab knows when to play it safe versus when to go in for the kill (sometimes literally.) This book is perhaps the most action-packed of any that I’ve read although her style is, as usual, slower than her normal adventure.
Lila Bard’s phenomenal to read. She’s scrappy and fierce, stealing and killing when necessary, but with a secret hard of gold. Got very Aladdin vibes from her. Her ambition, paired with Kell’s scruffiness, made for a winning combination as they were constantly trying to outwit each other. She has this secret desire to be a pirate, this weird little fantasy of hers of owning a ship and sailing from port to port, and I loved the ways that poked through on her escapades. She was kind of a pain, but one who meant well. Also the tension between her and Kell was awesome, although it wasn’t really romantic in nature — which was a pleasant surprise.
It has a vignette-ish feel. Hopping from adventure to adventure and scene to scene, with not that much cohesion between them. It worked for me, but definitely chopped up the narrative into different pieces that compelled me or didn’t quite — depended on the chapter.
I’ll definitely read the sequel. The ending was action-packed and full of twists, with enough heart-pounding moments of suspense. I respect cleverness more than anything in regards to reads, and V.E. Schwab delivers on that front most definitely. I adore her imagination when it’s displayed this successfully.
I wanted more from the conflict — from the antagonists, especially. I wanted more of a personal stake. It felt like that was missing, and I didn’t totally understand why the rock was so important. I craved the larger-than-life-ness that A Darker Shade of Magic didn’t quite hit. Some lines were cheesy and felt familiar. I’m thinking part of the reason I didn’t feel totally sucked in was likely because I wasn’t yet invested enough in the characters. I liked them a lot without feeling for them. Still, I’m hoping I get more of that from the sequel and I still had a great time.
Several of the reviews I read mentioned the same — that it was a well-done book that seemed like it was missing the wow factor, but was great enough to continue with and feel really good about.
I really enjoyed it. It didn’t blow my mind, but it was a solid read I would steadily recommend. Tropes and characters feel borrowed, but the action is good and the details are inventive enough to make up for it. I’d also reread it, and read the sequel — which makes it a winner in my book. Sometimes you just need a good world to jump into. I’m a fan.