Review: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab


A Darker Shade of Magic

by V.E. Schwab

Fantasy | 384 Pages | Published by Titan in 2015

| Rating |

Apparently there was a lot of hype surrounding A Darker Shade of Magic, a lot of hype that seemed to bypass me entirely. V.E. Schwab’s name was cropping up everywhere, everywhere but my bookcase that is. Fortunately for me, Dragons and Jetpacks had selected A Darker Shade of Magic as the August Fantasy Book of the Month and it soon found itself (along with Vicious – that sneaky basket stowaway) at the top of my to-read pile. Now I’m fully initiated into ‘the loop’ I can honestly say this book is magnificent. Schwab has created a richly immersive tale, woven with darkness and vibrant enchantment, which leaves me in great anticipation of a sequel.

Magic once flowed through the worlds, their doorways open to those who would cross them. Until the corruption set in. One by one the doors between worlds were closed. Each sealed off from the next, they evolved, changed and festered under the influence of monarchs, dynasties and usurpers.

Now only travelled by powerful magicians known as the Antari, one thing remains constant throughout. London. Grey London, a drab and magic free land ruled over by mad King George; Red London, a city of vibrant enchantment home to the Maresh Dynasty; the twisted and deadly White London, where magic is wielded like a knife; and Black London, a mysterious and ravaged city severed from the worlds like a rotting limb.

Kell is one of the Antari, a blood magician and traveller between worlds. An ambassador for the Red Court, he is charged with carrying messages between the respective powers of these lands. That is, until his habit of smuggling magical and benign artefacts between worlds lands him in a whole heap of trouble. As he escapes through Grey London, Delilah Bard, a notorious thief and prospective pirate, is swept along with Kell in the flight from cut-throats, brigands and a magic far darker and more powerful than anyone thought possible.

Schwab certainly has a way with words, her writing is incredibly evocative and weaves together four contrasting, imperfect and imaginative worlds. Each London is distinctive and instantly recognisable. Schwab captures the essence of each of these cities, her descriptive style assaulting the senses with colours, sounds and smells. Though they all share facets of the London, it is Grey London which resonates most with our own world. Danger forever hides in the shadows, in twisted alleyways and darkened streets. Even the most idealised London, full of colourful characters and vibrant magic, is not safe. This novel has carved new worlds out of our own history; at once exciting, dangerous and utterly absorbing.

A Darker Shade of Magic successfully bridges sub-genre gaps to present a narrative which appeals to a wide audience. For the most part, I like my tales dark and gritty; I like my weak, immoral, impulsive bastards. And if an antihero protagonist isn’t in the offing, then a dastardly villain will do just as well. Enter the Dane Twins. Every scene with them is a malicious dance, every encounter tortuous; Athos and Astrid are cats playing with mice. And then there’s Holland…

Schwab paints her characters in shades of grey, their personalities underlined by their London, the full spectrum of morality open to all. She creates a vivid picture of humanity’s imperfections and the two protagonists wear their imperfections (and many an item of clothing) incredibly well. Kell and Lila dominate the storyline; two conflicting, intertwining characters who remain infinitely relatable throughout, and who leave us with promise of magic, adventure and intrigue at the close of play.

Though, for me, Kell and Lila lose out to the secondary players in terms of unique personality traits, this novel succeeds in developing a diverse range of compelling characters, whose roles I can only hope will be extended in the ensuing novels.

Schwab is a gifted author whose words are as magical as the characters she creates. A Darker Shade of Magic is a short but brilliant read which will have you in another world at the turn of a page. And perhaps if you look out of the corner of your eye, or smell the scent of flowers on the air, you might just find a way from one London into the next.

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