A Darker Shade of Magic: We like it

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsA Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab fantasy book reviewsA Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

I was a big fan of V.E. Schwab’s 2013 novel Vicious, noting in my review how she had overcome the possible burden of overfamiliar concepts (it’s a folks-with-powers-who-have-some-gray-to-them kind of novel) with supremely polished execution. Well, she’s pretty much done the same with her newest novel, A Darker Shade of Magic, which takes many of the usual fantasy tropes and, again, just handles them all so smoothly that you simply don’t care much that you’ve seen them all before.

The basic concept is a nicely focused tweak of the multi-verse model, with a series of parallel Londons: Red London, a vibrant, colorful city where magic and life are in balance; White London, a cruel dog-eat-dog world where people and magic are more at war, with people seeing magic as something to be conquered and used; Grey London, a dull, dirty version mostly drained of magic; and the not-to-be-spoken-of Black London, where 300 years ago magic caused a cataclysm that precipitated the other Londons to “shut the doors” between the worlds so as to escape Black London’s fate. Now, the only communication is between the monarchs of each city.

Said communication takes place via the only people who can travel between the worlds — the Antari — who were always rare but since the closing of paths have become nearly non-existent. The main character, Kell, is attached to the royal family of Red London. The king and queen have adopted him like a son and their real child, Prince Rhys, and Kell are brothers in truth, though Kell chafes at the idea that he is less “family” and more “possession.”  The only other Antari known, Holland, is the diplomat for the brother-sister rulers of White London — a sadistic and power-hungry pair who have no qualms about using magic to compel others to do their will, turning some people into mere automatons.

The precipitating event in the novel occurs when Kell comes into possession of a powerful relic of Black London, one that poses a great threat to both its holder and to the greater worlds. It also offers the kind of power people will kill for, and so Kell soon finds himself in a race to try and destroy the artifact before it destroys him or his world, either directly or indirectly. He’s joined in this quest by Lila, a young pickpocket from Grey London who stumbled into the action thanks both to her thieving and to her great yearning for something more, for a sense of adventure.

The plot moves along briskly, smoothly, and at the perfect pace, with noisy action scenes nicely balanced by quieter character-driven ones. Schwab’s prose also sails along smoothly, carrying the reader effortlessly through the novel’s 400 pages. I read it easily and happily in a single sitting.

The characters are nicely drawn, with complex emotions and backgrounds: nooks and crannies of personal detail, some of which get explored and some of which merely mentioned, either as a background tapestry or perhaps to set us up for later adventures with these two.

Shades of Magic by V. E. SchwabLila is the familiar spunky-street-girl-orphan-who-takes-no-guff-and-whose-knives-are-only-slightly-less-sharp-than-her-attitude (future trademark on the SSGOWTNGWKAOSLSTHA acronym, by the way). But you know, if we told authors they couldn’t use any familiar character types, the last new story would have been told millennia ago. We know Lila’s “type” but we don’t know Lila, at least not until this book, and she’s a lovely, fun, individualized creation whose desperate desire for something beyond her life’s experiences runs like a constantly humming, painfully poignant current beneath her surface.

Kell, meanwhile, is also fully realized with his own secrets, his own longings and desires and flaws, and I like how Schwab isn’t afraid to have those flaws called out into the open by other characters. The villains are, well, villainy, with Schwab eschewing the “grey villain” trend in favor of all-out classical sadistic, power-mad, evil. And there’s something to be said for that. Schwab doesn’t fully ignore the benefits of greyness, though, serving up Holland as a nice bit of complexity, someone more betwixt and between.

Interestingly, magic itself is a character in this novel, its role chillingly portrayed in several darkly menacing scenes and it’s one of the areas where Schwab proves that even when working in familiar plot zones, authors can bring their own striking bits of originality.

I really enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic, even if I can’t say I “loved” it. I had a few minor complaints. Lila’s unconventionality feels a little too untethered, even as unconventionality, to her time/society, as does her speech at times. The story’s smoothness sometimes felt a little too smooth or easy, which I admit doesn’t make a lot of sense as a complaint, but I wouldn’t have minded a more complex structure of sort — a less straightforward, linear construction. Maybe some of this desire comes out of the familiarity of plot and character points (or maybe I’m just being a contrary hard-to-please jerk). Finally, the ending felt a bit rushed, maybe even a little anti-climactic.

I did appreciate that the ending resolved the major issues, making A Darker Shade of Magic a novel that can happily stand on its own, even as it also clearly leaves room, and points to, further stories in this setting (one reason why even as I wanted more details about these parallel worlds I didn’t count that as a complaint; I assume those details are forthcoming in a later novel).

Those quibbles aren’t why the book didn’t rise above highly enjoyable; sometimes you just can’t pinpoint why one good book wows you and another good one doesn’t. But even if A Darker Shade of Magic didn’t rise to that rarified level, I’ll quite happily pick up another book set in this world and I look forward to more time spent with these characters. Recommended.

~Bill Capossere


A Darker Shade of Magic Paperback – 2015 by V. E. SchwabA Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab fantasy book reviewsV. E. Schwab teased that A Darker Shade of Magic would include cross-dressing thieves, (aspiring) pirates, sadist kings and queens and epic magicky fight scenes, so it is perhaps surprising that the story opens with… an old coat. But this is not just any coat: it’s a coat with more sides than even its owner can keep track of. If Kell turns it inside out, it can change from a shabby disguise to a beautifully embroidered jacket, to more versions of itself than he knows. It enables him to pass seamlessly through different Londons: Grey and Red and White and Black, four parallel cities that will soon all be in danger of collapsing.

Kell is an Antari, a rare and coveted magician with the ability to travel between the different Londons. There is Grey London, bleak and without magic, ruled by a blind old king. Red London, Kell’s home city, where magic thrives. White London, ruled by the violent and sadistic siblings, Athos and Astrid. Finally Black London, which Kell knows next to nothing about, except that magic turned bad there, and the other worlds had to lock their doors to its evil.

Brooding and defiant, Kell is exactly the right sort of protagonist to be stalking between the worlds. His official duty is of official messenger between the monarchies of the other cities. But he also has a penchant for the forbidden: he smuggles. He takes artefacts from other cities — music boxes, trinkets, coins — and stores them for himself or sells them on. But one item is going to change everything: a mysterious black stone full of dark magic and darker motives, which could be the key to making or breaking the fates of the parallel worlds.

Enter Lila: ballsy, cross-dressing street-urchin-cum-wannabe-pirate who is determined to claw her way out of her uncharmed life. She comes from Grey London, and has absolutely no idea that magic, let alone a spectrum of other universes, exist. Imagine her consternation when she pickpockets Kell and finds him able to magically trace her back to the rooms at her inn. Her fate becomes intertwined both with Kell’s and the fates of the other Londons.

Schwab has redefined the boundaries of fantasy. She takes tropes and traits we’ve seen before and makes them new, fresh and original. Not only is the worldbuilding complex and intricate, but so are the characters. They have rich histories and backstories of their own, angsts and ticks, and will have you laughing, gasping and (often) wincing along with them from start to finish.

~Rachael McKenzie


A Darker Shade of Magic: A Novel (Shades of Magic) Kindle Edition by V. E. Schwab A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab fantasy book reviewsI think A Darker Shade of Magic has been on my to-read list for about an eon, and I’m glad I’ve finally gotten around to reading it. It turns out to be an excellent introduction to its series and its characters, a rollicking little adventure that does exactly what it has to. There’s definitely a bit of a feeling of “warm-up band” about the plot, but this is, after all, the first in the trilogy, and I’m excited for things to come.

The plot concerns four different Londons, because evidently England’s monopoly as a setting for stories about magicians has grown so intense that it’s started franchising in nearby dimensions. The four versions of London were once open to one another and magic flowed freely between them, but then one London meddled where man was not meant to tread and struck some sort of Dolorous Stroke that corrupted their entire world with black magic. The other Londons sealed themselves off from the newly dubbed “Black London,” and indeed from each other (just in case). Our story begins several centuries later, when the only remaining magicians who can move between the worlds are the Antari blood-mages (a rare and dying breed). Our protagonist, one Kell, is the Antari for the magically powerful Red London, from whence he makes trips into dystopian White London and boring, non-magical Grey London (aka our world). Though respected as a messenger and servant of his king, Kell subtly chafes against his duties and enjoys making deals on the side, smuggling goods between dimensions. When he inevitably ends up smuggling an artifact of corrupted Black London, he must undertake a deadly quest to get rid of it, along the way finding his fate entangled with that of Delilah Bard, a petty thief with enormous dreams. Together, the pair must find a way to save three worlds from utter devastation.

The novel is fun. Let’s start with that. Kell and Lila are interesting heroes, Schwab’s world-building is on point, and there are a lot of great scenes. The magic system is well-constructed enough that the reader understands what’s possible but also soft enough around the edges that it doesn’t feel like it needs a three-part glossary at the back. It’s functional (which is what matters) for Schwab’s solid, adventurous plot. It’s a tight, well-crafted piece of work, that plot, though admittedly it feels a little safe. There won’t be many surprised expressions over the villains’ identities or plans, for instance, and there are a lot of dangling plot threads by the end of the novel. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. A Darker Shade of Magic is out to give the reader a fun, palatable, but ultimately single-serving adventure while it sets up the world and characters for the presumably larger narrative coming in the next two books. It succeeds admirably at that particular goal.

In fact, it’s such a slick piece of work that I have relatively few criticisms to offer. The pacing is a little slow at the beginning, but picks up quickly. As I hinted above, the story is a touch predictable in places (there’s an obvious plot twist involving Lila that Schwab, in a rare misstep, seems to think will come as a surprise to the reader), but it doesn’t greatly diminish enjoyment of the story.

If there’s one particular point I want to focus on critically, though, it’s that while A Darker Shade of Magic is marketed to an adult audience and definitely tries to reach for a dark tone at times, it still feels a bit like a Young Adult novel wearing its mother’s clothes. Both Kell and Lila are technically grown-ups but certainly seem to spend a lot of time going over their love-hate relationships with their parental figures. Both are also orphans who sort of/kind of live at home with their caregivers (the usual young adult paradigm). Their inevitable romantic underpinnings also feel a little bit adolescent, what with hasty, awkward kisses “for luck” and an odd little scene where Lila uses magic to make a doppelganger of Kell perform a striptease. The latter from an adult woman would usually be played as creepy or at least sexually aggressive, but here it feels more like the usual risqué-behind-a-veil fan service for teenagers to titter at.

When the novel does decide to get more adult, the contrast can be jarring. Lila acts so much like the usual rebellious teenager with attitude but a heart of gold that when she occasionally murders people without hesitation, it feels like we’re briefly entering a different novel. Likewise, when Kell admits to a brutal backstory, it doesn’t quite mesh with the man who would rather tie up his unconscious archnemesis than just shoot him where he lies (thus committing murder but solving 90% of his problems). I found myself wondering if Schwab liked her darker themes in the abstract but in practice found it very tempting to drift into the YA comfort zone of sanding down the rough edges of the world and idealizing both heroes and villains.

That said, none of this made A Darker Shade of Magic much poorer or was even badly immersion-breaking. Schwab never allows her tonal shifts to metastasize into full-blown plot holes, and whether they serve a YA or adult novel, the characters and plot are equally entertaining. There’s a lot to admire here, and I have high hopes for the rest of the series. Recommended.

~Tim Scheidler


A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab fantasy book reviewsLike all of the previous reviewers, I enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic. Schwab’s fluent prose carried me right along, and the plot and pacing were just right. The book has a nice twist on the multiverse theme, and I really liked how the author conceived of the magical system.

Her characters are immediately interesting, especially Holland, who is the adversary of the Red London magician Kell. Holland is, like Kell, an Avanti (a particularly powerful and rare magician) who is enslaved by the sadistic twin rulers of White London. Holland functions as a villain in this story but his motivations are clear, and they sprang, originally, from a good place: a desire to save his magical world.

Tim’s review touched on the thing I felt throughout the book; while the events that happen and the consequences are violent, dark and dire, the tone of A Darker Shade of Magic read as YA to me throughout the book. I think Kell’s broody angst and his brother Rhy’s defiance led to that feeling. Particularly, while Rhy has reasons for the foolhardy actions he takes, he does not read to me as someone who was raised to be the future ruler of an empire. He reads as an indulged son. Lila, who is chronologically the youngest, brought less of a YA feel to the story for me; Lila’s ethical code (if you can call it that) is survival-based and she spends less time in the work obsessing over who she is and what her place in the world is — and more time staying alive or planning payback for those who have hurt her.

Overall, this is a refreshing take on epic fantasy, well-written and definitely entertaining.

~Marion Deeds


A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab fantasy book reviewsI loved A Darker Shade of Magic from the first page, and perhaps just a little more than any of the reviewers before me. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the characters we get to know — from what Bill has coined as the, “spunky-street-girl-orphan-who-takes-no-guff-and-whose-knives-are-only-slightly-less-sharp-than-her-attitude” we have in Lila Bard, to brooding Kell, and of course the horribly and perfectly evil rulers of White London. I couldn’t get enough of how the characters played off each other, reacted to news, and developed new layers to their relationships.

Tim points out that A Darker Shade of Magic is a lot of fun. I can fully support that assessment and, for me, that makes up for any short falls it may have. The level of engagement I had with this novel, the few late nights with it and the sheer delight, shock, and awe I felt at climactic scenes, are testament to a story well told for me and hopefully for people who read like I do.

~Skye Walker

Publication Date: February 24, 2015. From V.E. Schwab, the critically acclaimed author of Vicious, comes a new universe of daring adventure, thrilling power, and parallel Londons, beginning with A Darker Shade of Magic. Kell is one of the last Travelers—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes—as such, he can choose where he lands. There’s Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, ruled by a mad King George. Then there’s Red London, where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire. White London, ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne—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, personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, 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—a dangerous hobby, and one that has set him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations, first robs him, then saves him from a dangerous enemy, and then forces him to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure. But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive—and that is proving trickier than they hoped.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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TIM SCHEIDLER, who's been with us since June 2011, holds a Master's Degree in Popular Literature from Trinity College Dublin. Tim enjoys many authors, but particularly loves J.R.R. Tolkien, Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke. When he’s not reading, Tim enjoys traveling, playing music, writing in any shape or form, and pretending he's an athlete.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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SKYE WALKER, who has been on FanLit’s staff since September 2014 (after a brief time on staff as a YA reviewer in 2007-2008), is from Canada. Their HBA in Anthropology and Communications allowed them to write an Honours paper on podcasting as the modern oral tradition of storytelling: something they will talk about at any and all opportunities. Skye is a communications professional in the non-profit sector. These days their favourite authors include Ursula K Le Guin, Bo Bolander, and Chris Wooding. They can be found on social media @cskyewalker.

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11 comments

  1. Neat! If this is a series, is there a pool started to bet on when we will get to see Black London?

  2. This sounds like a great read!

  3. One thing that always strikes me about Schwab’s writing is her tremendous imagination, even when she’s playing with old tropes.

  4. I have never read anything by Schwab. I probably should. Thanks, Rachael!

  5. Anne /

    I love this series!

  6. Totally going to have to check this out. You guys just make it sound so unique. I’m definitely going to be keeping an eye out for this with my dealer…er, bookseller.

  7. April /

    I didn’t finish it. I just didn’t like the main character at all and that is a requirement for me.

    • April, I’m curious, which character; Lilah or Kell?

      • April /

        Marion – this was back when I didn’t get notifications for new comments so I never saw your question. Whoever the first character to show up is, Kell I think. Just wasn’t my cup of tea!

  8. Kevin S. /

    I totally agree with April. I got 160 pages into the book and found that I still couldn’t care less about Kell or Lila. I skipped to the last 50 pages and found it ended pretty much the way I thought it would.

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