When V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic opens, Kell is on his way to deliver a message to King George III. The world he moves through is recognizable as the city of London in the early 1800s—until he uses magic to open a door to an entirely different London, one where magic is real and the lifeblood of the city. And there are other Londons, too—one in a constant state of war and chaos, and one where magic has destroyed everything. Kell acts as a messenger (and sometimes smuggler) between these different worlds. But when he finds himself wrapped up in an evil conspiracy, he and his new friend Lilah Bard, a thief from our world, must journey across all the worlds to set things right.
I am always a sucker for good world-building, and in A Darker Shade of Magic, Schwab convincingly creates not one, but three different worlds. My favorite is “Red London,” a city where magic runs through every part of life, and whose beauty and pageantry contrasts sharply with our own “Grey London.” Much more frightening is “White London,” a violent world of predators, the most dangerous its pale twin rulers. All three cities are vibrant and fully realized, full of interesting characters and locales.
The book starts a bit slowly as Schwab introduces us to the characters, the worlds, and the ways they use magic to travel between them; but once the plot kicks into high gear, it never lets up. Kell and Lilah dash from world to world, facing near escapes, deadly battles, and dark magic. The pace is relentless and exciting, and I often found myself flipping pages, unable to wait to see what happens next.
All this adventure would be meaningless if we didn’t care about the characters; fortunately both Kell and Lilah are strong characters in their own right, and even stronger together. Kell was adopted by the royal family of Red London, but he feels more like a hostage than a member of the family. Lilah has had to struggle for everything in her life. Privileged Kell vs. Poor Lilah suggests the cliché “Prince and the Pauper” relationship we have seen so many times before, but Schwab challenges and complicates this idea at every turn: Kell embraces the power and responsibility of his position despite its restrictions, and Lilah doesn’t want to be rich—she wants nothing more than to be a pirate captain. It helps that both characters are equally capable in their own ways, and frequently rescuing one another.
I was also impressed by the way the book treats magic. All too often in fantasy novels, magic is either a deus ex machina that can do anything the plot requires, or bogged down in intricate rules that make it seem more like algebra than alchemy. While the magic in A Darker Shade of Magic is capable of great wonders, it always comes with a price—whether this price is taken from the characters’ bodies, their minds, or even their souls. Whether they choose to pay this price, and what they stand to lose, makes magic constantly fascinating.
Many recent YA books and movies are more concerned with setting up a sequel or starting a franchise than telling a complete story; and indeed, a sequel to A Darker Shade of Magic, called A Gathering of Shadows, was just released last month. Knowing this, I was pleasantly surprised by how satisfying the book’s ending was. The major plot was resolved, and most loose ends were tied up. I’m excited to read more not because of an ending teaser or plot twist, but because these are great characters living in a fascinating world, and I want to hear more about their further adventures. I wish more books could end so well!
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
HARRY POTTER AND THE GAME OF STONES
SCENE 1: Exterior, Privet Drive.
Professors DUMBLEDORE and MCGONAGALL materialize, DUMBLEDORE carrying a sleeping baby.
MCGONAGALL: Do you have him?
DUMBLEDORE: Yes. (looks at baby) He may be small now, but one day this will be the most famous wizard in the world. Everyone will know his name, and he will be the most celebrated…
MCGONAGALL: He’s your bastard, isn’t he?
DUMBLEDORE: … Shut up, Minerva.
SCENE 5: Interior, an isolated lighthouse. A storm rages outside.
MR. DURSLEY: Finally, we’ve found someplace those stupid ravens and their messages can’t reach us! If I never see a raven again it will be too soon!
A booming sounds from the door.
MR. DURSLEY: What’s that?
A huge, hairy giant bursts into the room.
HARRY: You’re here to take me away?
HARRY: And I’m going to learn to be a wizard?
DUDLEY: That’s not fair! I want to be a wizard!
HAGRID removes a giant axe from his cloak and promptly decapitates DUDLEY.
HARRY: I have a feeling that all my dreams are about to come true!
SCENE 7: Exterior, Diagon Alley.
HARRY: Look at all these magical shops! The Witch’s Cauldron! Ollivander’s Wands! Flourish and Blotts!
RONN: Yeah, those are all brothels.
HARRY: Oh. What about Gringott’s Bank?
RONN: Goblin brothel. You do NOT want to go in there.
HARRY: Thanks for the advice! I’m Harry Potter.
RONN: Wait, THE Harry Potter?
HARRY: No, where I come from they give all the bastards the last name Potter. It’s a little confusing.
RONN: I’m Ronn Weasley, pleased to meet you. Have you picked out a familiar yet?
HARRY: No, but that sounds magical! What different kinds are there?
RONN: Well, there’s stags, lions, dragons, kraken—don’t pick a kraken, they’re out of style…
HARRY: What about an owl? That white one is beautiful!
A large white wolf bounds into the alley and devours the owl.
HARRY: On second thought, what about a wolf?
RONN: Good choice.
SCENE 11: Interior, Hogwarts Great Hall.
DUMBLEDORE: –And finally, all students are advised to avoid the Raping Willow. And now, it is time for the Sorting Hat Ceremony!
SORTING HAT: Gather round, ye boys and girls,
It’s time to choose your houses!
This test determines your whole fate,
So come on, move your asses!
House Targaryen is no more
Since old King A. went crazy.
For students who like horses, braids,
And bowing to Khaleesi.
HARRY: These rhymes are terrible!
HERMIONE: Settle in. This goes on for awhile.
SORTING HAT: “Winter’s coming,” House Stark says,
I’m not sure why they bother.
All the Starks that I have known
Lost heads but kept their honor.
NEARLY HEADLESS NED: Too soon!
SORTING HAT: House Baratheon’s seed is strong,
The kids all have dark hair.
At least all of the bastards,
Which are frankly everywhere.
And finally House Lannister,
Their mark the noble lion.
More like lyin’ with your sister,
You can’t tell me I am lyin’.
DRACO: Boo! You can’t rhyme “lion” with “lyin!”
GOYLE: That’s a triple homophone, that is.
SORTING HAT: Arryn, Greyjoy, Florent, Frey—
Let’s list the lesser houses…
DUMBLEDORE: What are you, an appendix? That is more than enough of that. Let’s get on with the sorting. We’ll start off with—HARRY POTTER!
DUMBLEDORE puts the hat on HARRY’S head.
HARRY: Please not Lannister, please not Lannister…
SORTING HAT: Yeah, they’re pretty much all evil bastards. Why do we even have a house like that? Anyway, better be… STARK!
DRACO: Forget about it. He probably doesn’t even have a hot sister.
SCENE 37: Exterior, Hogwarts. HARRY, RONN and HERMIONE run towards HAGRID’S shack.
HERMIONE: Hurry, Harry! Only Hagrid can tell us how to get past the magical guardian of—
RONN: Oh, no! Hagrid’s house is on fire! I knew he should never have bought that dragon egg!
Hagrid emerges from the flames, completely naked, a baby dragon clutched against his hairy chest.
HERMIONE: …Let’s just pretend this never happened, okay?
HARRY and RONN: Agreed.
SCENE 50: Interior, Hogwarts Great Hall.
DUMBLEDORE: –And finally, for wisdom, determination, and courage in the face of unnecessary nudity, 300 points for House Stark!
DRACO: That is bullshit!
DUMBLEDORE: Draco, that is quite enough!
DRACO: No, it isn’t! My family has taken over this miserable school, and I am the new headmaster now! Snape, kill this old fool!
SNAPE: Avada Beheadra!
Dumbledore is magically decapitated.
HARRY: Well, fuck.
NEXT TIME: THE NIGHT IS DARK AND FULL OF MUGGLES.
When I saw the first commercials for MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles, which just finished up its first season last week, I dismissed it as a cheap Game of Thrones knock-off. But I couldn’t have been more wrong: it was actually more of a Lord of the Rings knock-off! Still, the bizarre mash-up of epic fantasy and MTV made for a show that was consistently interesting, even when it wasn’t really very good.
First, a disclaimer: I have, and will always have, a soft spot in my heart for Terry Brooks’ Shannara books. Many people dismiss them as carbon-copies of Tolkien, and yeah, it’s pretty hard to argue with that—especially the first book, The Sword of Shannara, which is pretty much a beat-for-beat recreation of The Lord of the Rings. However, these books were my gateway drug to reading fantasy—Brooks’ Magic Kingdom for Sale—Sold! was the first adult book I ever read—and I will always be thankful for that. Besides, Brooks has grown a lot as a writer, and his novels are reliably fun and exciting adventures.
So it was probably a good decision for MTV to skip over Sword and adapt Brooks’ second book, The Elfstones of Shannara. A lot of the basic elements are still familiar—the farm boy with a destiny, the mysterious mentor, the rebellious princess, the powerful magical artifact, the army of ugly monsters—but there’s enough difference that it doesn’t feel like The Lord of the Rings 2.0. Besides, much of the fantasy genre has been playing in Tolkien’s sandbox for a long time now, and other books and movies have remixed these same elements effectively.
In fairness, The Shannara Chronicles has a lot going for it. The series was filmed in New Zealand, and it looks beautiful. It’s full of those sweeping landscape shots we loved in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, and in its better moments, it captures some of the feel of those films (and even in its worse, it at least feels like Hercules or Xena). Adding to this impression is John Rhys-Davies, who plays the elven king—and let me tell you, it is weird seeing Gimli wearing elf ears. For a basic cable production the costumes and sets are surprisingly impressive, although some of the makeup effects are a bit dodgy: the gnomes look like they are wearing half-melted Halloween masks. One thing that makes the Shannara books unique is the twist that this fantasy world is (dun dun dun!) actually our world, centuries after a nuclear holocaust, and the show has fun with this idea in some of its better moments—and also some of its worst.
For example, take my pick for the series’ worst episode, “Utopia.” In this episode, our intrepid adventurers find themselves in a mysterious village where the inhabitants seem to be cosplaying as Mennonites (everyone else in The Shannara Chronicles is cosplaying as characters from Lord of the Rings). These villagers have apparently found a source of electricity (?!), which they use to power an ancient movie projector (??!!) and music player (???!!!), so they can hold an impromptu hoedown/rave (????!!!!). It comes completely out of left field, and is never mentioned again.
This is typical of the weird tension between MTV teen drama and epic fantasy that runs throughout the series. It’s trying for this epic, serious tone in the vein of Lord of the Rings, but almost every character talks like they just stepped off of a teen soap opera. The worst offender is protagonist Wil Ohmsford (Austin Butler). The character is almost painfully bland and generic, and the writers seem to have overcompensated by trying desperately to make him relatable to modern teens. He dresses in what I can only describe as a medieval version of a hoodie, complete with skullcap and fingerless gloves—he looks like he is on his way to Ye Olde Skate Park. He attempts witty banter with his mentor, the druid Allanon (whom I can only describe as “Jacked Gandalf”), but most of this falls completely flat. He is part of an unnecessary love triangle that never develops or really goes anywhere, I think because MTV dramas are legally required to have at least one forced love triangle.
This is all very silly—but it is also kind of what makes the show entertaining. It would just be another cookie-cutter fantasy, but its constant war with itself—MTV vs. epic fantasy—lends it an absurd and unpredictable quality that I haven’t really seen before. It’s often not good, but it is frequently so-bad-it’s good. It’s definitely a guilty pleasure, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t hope it got picked up for a second season.
“Kafkaesque,” despite being a great word for Scrabble, is not a word I would use to describe very many books. It expresses something ambiguous but unsettling, something dark and perplexing and vaguely ominous. It is also the perfect descriptor for China Miéville’s most recent novella, This Census-Taker.
I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, because much of the pleasure of the book lies in figuring out exactly what has happened, what is happening, and why. But I can say this: the story begins with a young boy running down a mountain to the city below, screaming, having witnessed something terrible. What follows is a sort of existential horror story, about what happens to the boy and how he copes with the nightmarish situation in which he finds himself.
One of the most interesting aspects of This Census-Taker is its setting. This setting is extremely small in scope, focusing on the unnamed boy’s house on the mountain and the small village below it. But every now and again, Miéville lets slip a tantalizing glimpse of the world outside this village, and the history behind it. Similarly, small details slowly reveal that the world this boy inhabits is very different from our own.
There are two main methods of worldbuilding in fantasy works like this. One method, practiced by authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin, is explication. Every location, every character, every word has a lengthy backstory, and readers with enough time and patience can connect it all. The other method, seen in works like this and many of Neil Gaiman’s stories, is implication. The world is not fully fleshed out, but only hinted at through sly suggestions and veiled references. It is up to the reader to fill in the gaps with her own imagination. This power to evoke a lot with a little is one of This Census-Taker’s greatest strengths.
China Miéville is a stylistic chameleon. In his baroque, sprawling New Crobuzon novels he adopts a similarly flowery and excessive writing style; in the noir-ish The City and The City, he takes up a more straightforward and almost hard-boiled prose. In This Census-Taker, he slips into the voice of someone clearly not comfortable with language, both as a traumatized boy and as an adult writing about his youth in a language not his own. The narrator slips between the first and third person at key moments, sometimes even referring to himself as “you.” Names and proper nouns are in scarce supply, and outside of a few friends people are called by their functions—mother, father, the hunter, and of course the census-taker. This ambiguity and even confusion at the level of language contributes to the unsettling and off-kilter tone of the book: nothing feels safe, nothing feels known.
Overall, this was not one of my favorite books by China Miéville. Not much happens—this is a book that focuses in on a single event and its repercussions instead of following a clear narrative—and despite some intriguing hints, the world feels a bit sparse compared to the overflowing Perdido Street Station. However, I do think it is a successful book. From the first page to the last, it gave me a profound sense of unease and discomfort, of entering an unsettling world full of ominous and unknowable authorities. If that isn’t Kafkaesque, I don’t know what is.
.Rating: 3 out of 5 stars