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