A Darker Shade of Magic
by V.E. Schwab
Rating: 5+ Stars
‘Most people only know one London; but what if there were several? Kell is one of the last Travelers magicians with a rare ability to travel between parallel Londons. There is Grey London, dirty and crowded and without magic, home to the mad king George III. There is Red London, where life and magic are revered. Then, White London, ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne. But once upon a time, there was Black London…’
I’m also including Schwab’s own summing up of this novel from Goodreads, as it really made me laugh (and her description of Prince Rhy is spot on).
Magic, Cross-dressing thieves, (Aspiring) pirates, Londons (plural), Sadistic kings (and queens), a royal who is equal parts Prince Harry and Jack Harkness, more magic (blood magic, elemental magic, bad magic, etc. etc.), epic magicky fights scenes, angst! and coats with more than two sides…
This is one of those books that has so much hype surrounding it that I’ve been putting off reading it for ages in fear of disappointment. How on earth could it live up to that much praise? In fact, I read the first 50 pages some time ago, way back in May, but I felt like I could feel a plot point looming up at him with terrifying speed and with it the inevitable disappointment. I put the book down, moved onto something else and didn’t pick it up again until last month.
I’m so glad I did, this is easily one of the books I’ve read this year. In fact, it turned out to be the fantasy genre version of The Miniaturist for me. I re-read those first 50 pages, discovered that I really didn’t need to worry about the turn I thought the novel was taking, and didn’t put the book down again until I’d finished reading it.
Schwab’s world-building is astonishingly good – the four London’s and how they fit together are a brilliant idea. Each is intriguing in it’s own way, with differing attitudes to magic and political power. White London is incredibly creepy, in Red London there is a sense of things not being quite as they seem, Grey has hidden depths and Black remains a stark warning against the dangers of indulging in too much magic. Each world has certain points that exist across all four, but other than that the geography differs greatly.
The magic system is intriguing, especially the blood magic.Throughout the book we follow Kell, a native of Red London and one of the two remaining sorcerers who are able to move between the worlds. He’s a really interesting character, he seems to have the most magical power in the book but is equally one of the most trapped, both by the laws surrounding his race and the ties of affection he has to his adopted – royal – family. I love his relationship with his adopted brother, it’s complicated but there’s a depth of affection there that was great. I really enjoyed following his point of view, he is undoubtedly flawed – entitled, a bit arrogant, yet incredibly naïve – but he’s also quite compassionate, principled. I hate to use the cliché but he’s got layers.
Our other protagonist is Lila. A young thief, down on her luck and trying to find a way out of her life, she stumbles across something incredibly dangerous that leads to her path crossing with Kell. She dreams of piracy, of the freedom and independence that having a ship might mean. I’ve seen some reviews that find her off-putting, but for me she was a lot of fun to read. She’s had a hard time and it’s hardened her in turn, but she’s still got a zest for life, a sense of humour and compassion.
The supporting cast are also really interesting, the other blood sorcerer, Prince Rhy – even Prince Rhy’s guards are all really well written. There’s a couple of moments at the end, one between Rhy and Kell and one between Lila and another character that are just brilliant and completely made my jaw drop.The plot is wonderfully twisty and I can’t wait to see how it develops in subsequent novels.