As always when I review a friend’s book, a disclaimer: I am friends with the author, V.E. Schwab. I got my hands on an early copy of A Darker Shade of Magic through trickery and intrigue (or, yanno, asking nicely). But this in no way affects my review of this book. I don’t love every book every one of my friends has written (seriously, you can ask them), and I wouldn’t recommend a friend’s book if I didn’t enjoy it.
But this book – this book – ohhhhhhh it’s divine. This one I can recommend without reservation. This one is one I’d devour even if I had never crossed paths with one V.E. Schwab. It’s been a while since I’ve attempted to read adult fantasy (and make no mistake, A Darker Shade of Magic, like V.E.’s amazing earlier release Vicious, is written for adult audiences, unlike the novels she publishes as Victoria Schwab, which are YA and Middle Grade), even though I love fantasy, simply because I haven’t been sure I had the time to devote to that sort of dense worldbuilding and sprawling narrative and tiny font.
Related: why does adult genre fiction have such tiny font? Adults are older. Our eyesight is worse. The font should be bigger.
Get off my lawn.
(Not really. Please come back.)
But anyway, with this premise, and this cover, and my epic love for Vicious, I knew I needed to get A Darker Shade of Magic into my brain, tiny font and all. And wow. Just…wow. It was worth the tiny font.
While I was really tempted to do this review all in gifs, I will do my best to make actual words.
Okay, fine, ONE gif.
There, don’t you feel better? Or is it just me? I’m fine if it’s just me.
The Plot (from Goodreads):
Kell is one of the last Travelers—rare magicians who choose a parallel universe to visit.
Grey London is dirty, boring, lacks magic, ruled by mad King George. Red London is where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire. White London is ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne. People fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. Once 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 royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell smuggles for those willing to pay for even a glimpse of a world they’ll never see. This dangerous hobby sets him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a dangerous enemy, then forces him to another world for her ‘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 — trickier than they hoped.
As with most high fantasy, A Darker Shade of Magic starts slow and quiet, building a world that is like ours, and not like ours, brick by brick. We meet Kell, a mysterious wanderer in a fabulous coat, who travels between worlds as easily as stepping from one room to another. There is Grey London, which plays like a straight historical fiction of our world, Red London, Kell’s home, which is rich and teeming with magic, and White London, which has been all but burned up by magic and treachery. And then there is Black London, which no one travels to anymore, not even Kell.
The world of each London is established subtly but confidently, and through Kell’s eyes, the rules of each overlapping London gradually become clear and distinct. Once we’ve gained our footing in the magic of Kell’s world and have a sense of the difficulties he faces in each London, we meet Lila, a cunning thief from Grey London with a quick hand and a taste for adventure. It takes a while for all the building blocks of the story to fall into place, but there are plenty of rewards for the patient reader, from the lush details of the worlds to the charming characters to Schwab’s signature poetic prose.
Then, once Lila and Kell inevitably cross paths, the story takes off, plunging both protagonists into a London-jumping whirlpool of courtly intrigue and deception while playing up the conflict between Lila’s lack of magic and Kell’s abundance of it to maximum, satisfying effect.
What V.E. Schwab did so well in Vicious, and what she does again here, is establish each of her characters, from heroes to villains, as fully realized, fleshed-out individuals. While Lila and Kell are both brave and charismatic, they are also criminals, and while the main antagonists – the terrifying sibling rulers of White London – are undeniably sinister, the people they use to carry out their dark deeds are in many ways conflicted and sympathetic. Blurring that line between hero and villain is a tricky game, but Schwab accomplishes it masterfully.
As I said before, the first half of the book may be a slow burn, but it’s a delicious one. Readers shouldn’t expect to plunge straight into adventure and murder and intrigue, but there is plenty to enjoy along the road to chaos. And once the book hits its stride, there are payoffs aplenty as the story builds in intensity all the way through to its twisting, bloody conclusion.
A Darker Shade of Magic will have a sequel, but this first installment ends on a perfectly satisfying note. I can’t wait to join Kell and Lila on their next London-hopping adventure, but I was utterly sated with the ending of this book. There are no cliffhangers here, only the graceful bow of one adventure while another waits in the wings, peeking around the corner.
If you’re in the mood for a refreshingly unique spin on alternate universes, magic, and devastatingly gorgeous coats – or if you just want a beautifully crafted story told in a mesmerizing, lovely, and occasionally creepy voice, then you should move A Darker Shade of Magic to the top of your list.