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A Darker Shade of Magic: A Novel (Shades of Magic) Hardcover – February 24, 2015
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Entertainment Weekly's 27 Female Authors Who Rule Sci-Fi and Fantasy Right Now
“A Darker Shade of Magic has all the hallmarks of a classic work of fantasy. Its plot is gripping. Its characters are memorable. Its setting in four parallel, powerful Londons is otherworldly yet believable. Schwab has given us a gem of a tale that is original in its premise and compelling in its execution. This is a book to treasure.” ―Deborah Harkness, New York Times bestselling author of The All Souls Trilogy
“Compulsively readable...her characters make the book. Just as Kell has layers, Lila is a satisfyingly rich invention...With so many worlds on the map, there's plenty left to discover.” ―NPR
“A Darker Shade of Magic feels like a priceless object, brought from another, better world of fantasy books.” ―io9
“Schwab (Vicious) creates an ingenious set of nesting alternate Londons in this imaginative, well-crafted fantasy. Confident prose and marvelous touches-a chameleon coat, a scarlet river of magic, a piratical antiheroine-bring exuberant life to an exhilarating adventure among the worlds.” ―Publishers Weekly, starred review
“A Darker Shade of Magic is smart, funny and sexy ... Schwab keeps the excitement coming with roller-coaster plot twists that establish her as, perhaps, the natural successor to Diana Wynne Jones's contemporary fantasy crown.” ―The Independent
“Fantasy fans will love this fast-paced adventure, with its complex magic system, thoughtful hero and bold heroine.” ―Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
V. E. Schwab's first adult novel, Vicious, debuted to critical praise and reader accolades. Schwab is the author of YA novels The Near Witch, The Archived, and The Unbound. She is also currently writing a fantasy middle grade series with Scholastic.
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Just a bit of brief plot summary for context. There are four Londons in this novel, and a select few individuals can magically travel among them. These are referred to as Grey London, Red London, White London, and Black London, and they are different in how magic affects each world, in how (and by whom) it can be used in each world (the equivalent of *our* world is Gray London). The action takes place in the first three; no one has visited Black London in quite a long time. Only London is the same in each world; in other worlds, there is no France, for example, and not even a proper "England" in Red London.
The parallel worlds thing has been done quite a lot in fantasy, but I am fine with that. I like the twist here, that one of our two main characters (Kell, more on him in a bit) is not from our world, but is from Red London, where magic is ubiquitous. (Often, in such stories, including those by Guy Gavriel Kay in the Fionavar Tapestry, in Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books, in Charles Stross's more sci-fi-based Merchant Princes series, etc., it is people from our world traveling elsewhere. So it is nice to see a different perspective.) I also like that this is not set in the present day, but instead in the past. So even though theme is familiar, there are some alterations that manage to make it unique.
We have two main characters, Kell and Lila. Kell is from Red London, as previously mentioned, while Lila is from Grey London. Both have mysterious pasts; Kell remembers basically nothing before he was taken in by the royal family of Arnes (the country containing Red London) due to his magical abilities. (He is an Antari, marked by having one normal eye and one that is completely black. There are very few Antari, and they are the only ones able to travel among the worlds. They also have nearly unparalleled magical abilities, in general.) Lila is alone on the streets, making a living (such that it is) as a pickpocket and dreaming of being a pirate with her own ship.
The two of them encounter one another maybe 1/3 of the way through the story and they travel and work together through much of the rest of the book. I wouldn't say their first encounter seems contrived, because there are some uncanny parallels between their two worlds, such as a particular inn/tavern that seems to be co-situated in all three of the Londons Kell has visited, the existence of London and the Thames, etc. Since they both live in London and visit the inn (different Londons and different inns, but eerily the same, as well), it seems they are fated to meet. And their abilities complement one another. Sometimes the secrecy and stealth of a thief is needed, sometimes reputation and magical fighting ability are better suited to the situation. I think they are a good team. There is no romance between them in this book, though it is possible something like that could be set up for the future. Kell's reputation and duties are such that he doesn't seem to be looking for love or to have the time for it (or the trust to share with someone else), while Lila masquerades as a man and doesn't have what would be considered traditional aspirations for a young woman in the society from which she hails. I find the lack of romance refreshing, especially in a mixed-gender pair like this.
The other thing I like about the characters is that they have nice depth. Both have secrets (including a tantalizing one about Lila revealed about halfway through; I can't wait to see where that goes in future books), both have killed (not just in self-defense), both have flaws, both have their own moral codes that might not be exactly the same as yours or mine. And yet, you are still cheering for them, and not just because other characters are worse. Both are quite sympathetic.
Moving on, there is a lot of action in this book and I think it is well-written. It can be difficult to describe magical battles such that the reader can envision everything that happens, but I felt that was not an issue here. (There were also physical battles, weapons like guns/knives, etc.) I felt there were adequate dangerous situations for both Kell and Lila (and some of their associates); although not everything turned out as I expected, neither just skated through. They ran into difficulties, they had to be resourceful. The sense of danger and the well-written fights made me feel like the plot was always moving forward, and at a nice pace, at that.
Speaking of the plot, I felt that it was basically self-contained in this book. There were endings for Lila and Kell. But, there were also some interesting possibilities laid out for future books. I am not yet sure where the overall series arc will take us (presumably we will learn the secrets of Lila's and Kell's pasts in future volumes -- I am not yet enough into volume two to see if that is true); however, there are some interesting possibilities for where things could go in the future.
I also liked the writing. As mentioned earlier, it was especially good during action sequences. But I also thought it was good at setting the scene for each of the different Londons. If you opened the book to a random part and didn't know which London you were in, I think you'd be able to guess based on the setting. And, when you were inside the protagonists' heads, their thoughts were different. They had different personalities, different aspirations, different goals. They were not just two aspects of the author projected onto the page. So that was also done well.
If I had one criticism, it would be that there were a few too many instances of characters being saved from very dire situations or being able to fight when they ought to have been incapacitated. It made for dramatic action, but it was perhaps not quite as believable within the context of the story as the author would have wanted. This is a common issue in fantasy novels, and considering that some degree of magical healing is accounted for here (as well as some consequences), it is not an unforgivable writing sin.
Anyway, on balance, I enjoyed this quite a bit. It was a nice break from the epic fantasy I've been reading lately and I'm glad I picked it up!
"I'm not going to die," she said. "Not till I've seen . . . everything."
What do you get when you mix equal parts magic, inter-dimensional travel, strong female characters, and criminal activity, with a hint of romance? A Darker Shade of Magic, of course! I was drawn to this book because 1) it's been super popular among the Instagram reader community, and 2) there is not one, but four Londons (mega points for creativity, Schwab).
What did I like about this book? Well, the whole premise was highly original. Kell, the main character, can travel between 4 Londons—White London, Red London, Black London, and Grey London. Each London has a different relationship with magic, whether they embrace it, worship it, kill for it, or don't believe in it (not in that order). But Kell and one other character are the only ones able to travel between the Londons, which means they are messengers and ambassadors for the leaders (which leads to some interesting problems).
I also liked that the book wasn't all about romance—there was very little. Lila and Kell worked as a team. The book also dealt with brotherly relationships and caring for family, even if they are not your blood relatives. It also tackled the age-old question of "what do you do if you come into a lot of power, but it's an evil power," which naturally includes character motive investigation, willpower, and self discovery.
However, as with many hyped books, this one fell a little short of my expectations (hence, 3.5 stars). What went wrong? Let me share:
1) Dialogue – I didn't feel like it flowed naturally and was a tad cliche.
2) The Strong/Independent Female Main Character Trope – Lila Bard is a cool character, but I'm just a little tired of the whole tough girl characters who don't need a man or anyone else and don't embrace their uniquely feminine strengths. Why does a girl have to act like a man to get attention in the literary community? Why can't she be feminine and strong? *steps off soapbox*
3) Character/plot originality – Although the premise was unique, much of it felt like other YA lit fantasy that I had read before and that was better executed (e.g., Leigh Bardugo's Six of Crows and the Grisha trilogy).
4) World building – I wanted more details. I can never have too much solid world building, and I think it's essential for fantasy to connect with the reader.
Overall, a fun read, but not quite a 4-star rating.
Most recent customer reviews
- V.E. Schwab has a really nice writing style.Read more