June 25, 2020Books
Review: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
Shades of Magic Trilogy, Part One
A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab earns my first PCC review because it is a thoroughly inventive and absorbing fantasy with the most economical and compact world-building I’ve ever read.
The first character we meet is Kell, one of two protagonists in the book.
“The first thing he did whenever he stepped out of one London into another was take off the coat and turn it inside out once or twice (or even three times) until he found the side he needed.” Think of all we learn here about the setting of ADSOM. The rules are different in this book, but because of the simplicity of this description I was left curious but not confused. The remainder of the chapter has some additional, very light exposition, but you won’t have to read any real info dumps until about page 178. By then you’ll likely be so engaged with the story you’ll easily summon the patience to take it all in.
In A Darker Shade of Magic, there are four Londons - Gray, Red, White and Black. People used to use magic to travel between the Londons, but the magic got out of hand in Black London and started burning people from the inside out. To save the rest of the Londons, Red London led the way in sealing the doors between the worlds. Black London was cut off and all its inhabitants presumed dead. Now the only people who can travel between the remaining Londons are the Antari - magicians that use their blood to create doors between and within worlds. Kell is one of two Antari left. His home base is Red London, where he has been adopted and raised as a prince. Kell acts as a messenger between the royals of the various Londons. He also has a secret - he’s engaged in a whole lot of transference, which is the FORBIDDEN smuggling of objects from one London to another. Kell knows he shouldn’t be doing this, but can’t seem to stop himself. He loves his treasures (music boxes in particular tickle him) and he likes the rush of adrenaline he gets from the practice. He does a lot of his smuggling business at what he calls a “fixed point” - a tavern that exists in each London.
Outside this tavern in Gray London he crosses paths with our other protagonist, Lila Bard, pickpocket. She’s fierce and wily, alone in the world, and hungry for a way out of her current life. She sees pirating (or any adventure without obvious limits) as her true destiny.
Kell is confident and a little arrogant but still easy to be around and clearly good at heart. Unfortunately, his little smuggling problem catches up with him when, under impaired judgement, he takes on a transfer from an unknown resident of White London, which is ruled by two truly heinous twins, supported by the only other Antari, Holland.
Kell knows almost as soon as he returns to Red London that keeping the parcel was a mistake. Things go sideways in a spectacular way as he’s preparing to get rid of his unwanted cargo. Kell realizes he’s in possession of something wickedly dangerous, and he escapes to Gray London to regroup. His pocket is promptly picked by Lila.
What is this thing that Lila now has? Who set Kell up? What’s the greater purpose? Those answers unfold throughout the novel, and I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that after some excellent antagonistic banter Kell and Lila join forces to return the contraband to its source, which means first stopping in Red London. This is the first time in centuries a non-Antari has passed through the worlds, and it’s just the adventure Lila has been waiting for.
Thoughts from Your Pop Culture Concierge
ADSOM gets an unreserved PCC stamp of approval. In addition to the elegant way V.E. Schwab introduces us to this world, both the plot and characters are developed in engaging and authentic ways.
With just a few scenes, Schwab shows us (rather than tells us) that Kell is kind and fond of his family, but with questions about both his past and his current place in the royal kingdom. That uncertainty makes him a little restless and a little reckless.
When we meet Lila it doesn’t take long to appreciate her razor-sharp survival instincts, her wanderlust and, significantly, her hatred of the bigger picking on the littler.
Kell and Lila and both particularly nimble-minded. They assimilate new information quickly and, even when they don’t immediately understand what they’re learning, they take almost nothing at face value and are constantly strategizing. Lila is particularly wary of easy answers or easy magic. Despite Kell’s lifelong partnership with magic, he is much more susceptible to its dark mischief than Lila the novice. She recognizes it as “clever magic” and gives it a wide berth. You’ll enjoy spending time with them, both separately but also as a team, as they complement each other really effectively.
Holland, the Antari from White London, is a complex antagonist. For all that he and Kell have in common, being the only two of their kind, they are not allies. Holland can be cunning, venal and outright villainous. But as his backstory unfolds it’s hard to see him as a one dimensional bad guy. It takes real skill to portray an adversary for whom you can find empathy, but Schwab pulls it off well with Holland.
Despite their strengths, both Kell and Lila make mistakes that are true to their characters. This drives the plot forward in a way that feels organic rather than contrived. The story that unfolds isn’t predictable, even for someone who reads A LOT, and the conclusion is satisfying, but leaves the door open for so much more.
ADSOM is a meaty and almost self-contained story, but as part one of a trilogy it also successfully lays the groundwork for future installments. It’s clear to see there are secrets of Kell’s origins to unearth, and opportunities for some of this book’s secondary characters to take a more active role in the story.
Part Two is A Gathering of Shadows. Assuming it continues the strength of part one, I look forward to reading, reviewing and recommending it in a future post.
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