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).
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.