It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

DarkerShade

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab. Published February 24th, 2015 by Tor Books. 400 pages.

For some reason I don’t find myself reading that much genre fiction, although I often like it. Maybe it’s because most fantasy novels have cover designs that look straight out of a Scholastic book fair graphic novel and that throws my off. A Darker Shade of Magic does not have that problem (the cover design is quite lovely). 22055262

In the other reviews I looked through, people either loved this novel or thought it was just ok. I find myself in the latter category. Don’t get me wrong—I liked it. On Goodreads I gave it a 3 star rating, but it’s closer to a 3.5. It’s a compelling, fast read, that I found compelling enough to blast through in about a week.

However. One of the strengths touted in many of the reviews is that the concept is very unique. In the world V.E. Schwab has crafted, there are four parallel Londons: the boring one with no magic (Gray London); the exciting, prosperous one with magic (Red London); the one that used to have magic but has the life sucked out of it (White London); and the spooky one overtaken by magic (Black London). While these places are parallel, only the Antari, a special race of magicians, can travel between them. Our main character, Kell is one of them.

For me, this concept was not as unique as it sounds. One of my favorite novels, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, did the “magic door-opening” thing before this, and that novel had a little simpler of a world and felt more fleshed out because of it. That leads me into my next point: I felt that both and world and the characters were underdeveloped. Unfortunately Schwab often defaulted to telling over showing.

We are told that the main characters, Kell and Lila, are both dangerous people who have killed before and don’t have many qualms about doing it again. Lila is supposed to be a cutthroat thief (who also dreams of being a pirate despite presumably never having left London?), yet the whole time Lila and Kell help each other and are definitely the good guys. The novel claims these characters are morally ambiguous but they aren’t beyond a superficial-backstory level. It would be more interesting if Kell was supposed to be this upstanding figure who got into the whole mess because he is a good guy and went through a journey of having to kill, lie to his family, and break the rules of his world.

(I keep getting caught up on the pirate thing. Why pirate? This book literally has three locations and all of them are London. The series has absolutely nothing to do with the sea. It’s like Lila wanting to be a pirate is nothing more than a tepid metaphor that shows all us readers that she craves adventure. Except we don’t need clues, because Schwab just comes out and tells us that she does.)

Other people have critiqued the writing as flat and boring. Personally I didn’t have a problem with the simplicity of the writing. It works very well with the descriptive scenes of the separate Londons.

Of course, there are two more novels in the series, so maybe some development comes from that. I plan to read the next two books, but I would feel a lot more motivated to if at the end of the novel Lila betrayed Kell (spoilers: that does not happen. I sure wish it did though).

I think (I hope) that a Gathering of Shadows (book #2) dives into some of the things hinted at in this one because there’s definite potential for things to get really interesting. I have some ~theories and won’t even be disappointed if they all turn out to be true.

The Raven Cycle // Review

The Raven Cycle is a tricky series to categorize. On one hand the young adult series is low-fantasy, or perhaps it’s paranormal, or the cringe-inducing paranormal romance. Either way, it’s been an immensely popular series across pedestrian reviewers on book blogs and Youtube.

The Raven Cycle was all the rage around the internet last spring when the fourth and final book of the series, the Raven King, was released. I have a well-documented distaste for YA so it was simply not on my radar for some time, but I do try to diversify my reading and decided to give it a go. I ordered my books off of the Book Depository because I couldn’t bear to pay full price so I have the British edition, which is mostly the same except they change words like gas to petrol.

The quality of the books themselves is awful. Sigh. Scholastic never changes.

The Scholastic Book Fair is a load of crap. -My mom, a school librarian

The Raven Cycle follows the lives of a group of teenagers in a small Virginia town called Henrietta with an all-boys boarding school that sounds an awful lot like a New England one. But then again, not all students live in the dorms, they live on their own off campus. It’s a small detail, probably for convenience, but as someone who has lived with boarding school culture it doesn’t make much sense to me. All the boys— Ronan, Adam, Gansey— attend the school except for the female member of the squad, Blue, who is a local.

Blue’s family (made of mostly her mother’s friends) are psychics. She, herself, is a mirror who amplifies other’s magical abilities. Blue is billed as a typical “weird girl” who is too strange to fit in at public school and is Not Like Other Girls; however, she manages to be delightful despite this. Through coincidence and a sprinkling of fate, Blue gets wrapped up in the boy’s plot to uncover a sleeping Welsh king supposedly buried beneath the town. That is essentially the overarching plot of the series.

There’s magic, drama, intrigue—it’s certainly more dimensional than other YA titles.

After reading the second book (the Dream Thieves, also my favorite and by far the standout), I decided that I would review the books together, as a series. Although it’s made of four books, I honestly don’t feel as though there was enough plot. Each book is fairly long—between 300-400 words each. The structure is so that each novel centers around a major character: the first is Adam’s book, then Ronan’s, Blue’s, and finally Gansey’s. The point of view shifts multiples times and there is essentially a guiding focus… but not much else.

The series is treated more like an anthology or a television show than a cohesive series of novels. It’s a fantasy story in installments, which is not exactly the best format for a fantasy. There is the guiding quest to find Glendower, the magical Welsh king, but the ‘bad guy’ changes in every novel to the point where they all feel superficial. Even the final installment an interesting, dynamic character named Henry Cheng is introduced and he becomes a fundamental and important part of the group with hardly any screen time.

The writing itself feels this way, too. Stiefvater is a talented writer who I image will only get better the more she publishes (she’s fairly young for an author of eight books at 34). She produces beautiful sentences—moments, really. But like a movie, moments aren’t enough. I didn’t find the substance between the lovely, quotable lines to have enough purpose. Sometimes the plot jumps from hit to hit without much in between. A novel absolutely needs to be purposeful and make sense between the major hits or it becomes empty.

There’s reason to enjoy these books— they’re actually interesting and unique, for one, and are enjoyable and easy to read. Part of the reason the lack of development in characters and plot annoys me so much because the world really is an engaging one. I crave more, but when I finished the final book I felt… incomplete. I feel as though, almost, a determined editor could shave Stiefvater down to one, fantastic 500 page book.

It was good. Not great, but good. A passable novel that wasn’t a waste of my time and almost certainly inflated by the surrounding hype. More than anything it made me want to revisit Lord of the Rings, which I think is its best characteristic.