A Darker Shade of Magic is the first in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series and was a Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fantasy in 2015. The full trilogy is out and available and remains extremely popular with the adult and young adult fantasy readers. In short, this is another “hype” series I had to investigate. Tor Books | January, 2016 (first published February, 2015) | Paperback | 398 pp
There are a number of different color-coded worlds but the story stays within London, just not always the same version of London. There is Grey London where the readers are from – dull and devoid of magic, but technologically advanced. There is Red London where magic flows through the land from its river source – the Thames. In White London, the magic hides from people who have tried to own and bind it, leaching away the color from the world as it buries itself deep within. Black London has been sealed away after magic won the balance and took over the souls of its inhabitants.
Kell is one of only two known people in all of the worlds who can jump between worlds. He is an “Antari”, one who can control “blood magic” and blood is a powerful source of magic. Marked with one completely black eye, our red-headed protagonist was adopted by the royal household in Red London and grew up as brother to the royal prince, creating a strong bond of brotherly love. He was adopted because of his unique ability to bring messages to and from the royal households in the different Londons. Although he is technically “property”, he was shown much love and affection.
Unbeknownst to the king and queen, Kell is also a smuggler. He illegally transports trinkets and valuables between worlds for a price. Hundreds of years prior, doors were open between worlds and people could freely visit while magic also freely flowed through these doors. But when Black London fell, the doors were sealed and the transfer of items between worlds became outlawed. This is because overpowering magic could be imbued in any tangible item from Black London which could then be used to take over any of the other worlds. But Kell only deals with trade between Grey, Red and White Londons – until he was betrayed.
Finding himself on the run, injured, and bound to a dangerous relic, Kell ports into Grey London and runs into Delilah Bard (“Lila”), a thief and murderer. Now that Delilah has become entwined with Kell, she’s no longer safe. Delilah can easily take care of herself, but with another Antari from White London fixed on her signal, there’s no way she can survive without sticking close to Kell. The relic he carries is strong enough to bring her through the blood door and into Red London.
Kell needs to figure out who has betrayed them, protect his brother and adopted parents, deal with this annoying liability called Lila, find a new way into White London, and get the relic back to Black London all while a notorious Antari and other black souls from Black London are on the hunt and leaving bodies in their wake. Delilah, finally on the adventure she always wanted, isn’t going to let Kell hog all the deadly fun.
A Darker Shade of Magic is a dark fantasy in which morbid and frightful descriptions of magic being sentient with a willingness to take over the soul is entrenched throughout the read. A balance of power between human and magic is portrayed, each being its own master. Each version of London has its own look and feel, each richly described and beautifully distinct. The most captivating moments in world-building are when Delilah, who never knew of magic or other Londons, explores Red London with its shimmering aura of magic for the first time.
“The vivid glamour of the world outside paled in comparison to the world within. It was a palace of vaulting glass and shimmering tapestry and, woven through it all like light, magic. The air was alive with it. Not the secret, seductive magic of the stone, but a loud, bright, encompassing thing. Kell had told Lila that magic was like an extra sense, layered on top of sight and smell and taste, and now she understood. It was everywhere. In everything. And it was intoxicating.”
The character differences between Kell and Lila have been seen in other YA novels, but not quite like this. The difference in class is common, with Kell being a noble and Lila being a ‘street rat’ – we’ve seen this disparity in a number of books. They come from different worlds, literally, and while one grew up steeped in magic, the other had never known of its existence. But you can forget about the expected romance, for now – because Lila is not your typical heroine. We first meet her dressed as a man, her preferred manner of dress. She eschews traditional notions of femininity and when it comes to her pick of costume, she opts for debonair over beautiful. Moreover, while Kell considers killing someone an awful thing to do, Lila quite enjoys it. Make no bones about it, Lila is a cold-hearted murderer. Traditional gender roles have been completely set aside for our main characters.
A Darker Shade of Magic is an opportunity to ditch this world for a more colorful one. Book your flight and buy the book for a magical adventure.
A Darker Shade of Magic
by V.E. Schwab