- A Darker Shade of Magic, V. E. Schwab
Rating: * * * * *
Series: Shades of Magic #1
Publisher: Titan Books
Publication Date: February 2015
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.
I read ‘A Darker Shade of Magic’ a few weeks ago and I did so, appropriately, on the train to London. In the time since I have not been able to stop thinking about it. What struck me most about ADSOM was its originality: its world, characters and take on magic were hugely imaginative and refreshing. From the start of the first chapter to the end of the last chapter I was utterly engaged and involved in the story, and as soon as I finished reading it I began rereading it. In short, I loved it!
The characters in ADSOM are striking and distinctive. The lead character is Kell, a Traveller and smuggler who has one blue eye and one eye that is completely black, as well as a coat that can be turned inside out multiple ways. He is both admired and isolated by his magical ability. Kell can be grumpy and cold, but he is fiercely loyal to those he loves, especially his brother Rhy. Rhy himself is in many ways the opposite of Kell – charming, charismatic and vibrant, but the two of them complement each other very well. Both Kell and Rhy are vivid and multidimensional and I particularly love the scenes where they are together, as well as this section where Kell mentions Rhy:
‘Just because he adopted a more modest palette when he was abroad (wishing neither to offend the local royalty nor to draw attention) didn’t mean he had to sacrifice style.
Oh, kings, thought Kell as he fastened the buttons on the coat. He was starting to think like Rhy.’
Kell and Rhy are both awesome, but I think that my favourite character from the novel is Lila Bard, the pickpocket who has dreams of becoming a pirate and having her own ship. She is a wonderful combination of opposites: she’s practical, pragmatic, strong and crafty in her method of stealing things, but she is also an optimist, a dreamer who possesses a kind of reckless vulnerability and makes comments like this:
“I’m not going to die,” she said. “Not till I’ve seen it.”
Her smile widened. “Everything.”
Lila’s enthusiasm and vitality makes her a loveable character and as soon as she entered the novel a few chapters in, she joined the ranks of my all time favourite female characters.
The novel’s plot is fantastic – thrilling and well thought out – and the world-building is, too. Each London is brilliantly described and is very atmospheric. I could picture everything, from the Kros Mejkt, the Stone Forest in White London which is made up not of trees but of people, to the curved spires of the Royal Palace of Red London. I also found the idea of there being a tavern in the same spot in every different London, a fixed point, fascinating and inventive.
Overall, ADSOM is an exhilarating and inspired novel, the perfect read if you’re looking for a refreshing fantasy novel, particularly because, unusually, there is very little (next to no) romance and the main female character would rather wear a suit than a dress. I purchased it for 99p on Kindle and I honestly think it is the best 99p I have ever spent, and based on this novel, I would read anything that V. E. Schwab writes. I cannot wait to see her at YALC in July!