“I’m not afraid of dying. But I am afraid of dying here.” She swept her hand over the room, the tavern, the city. “I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.”
Author: V.E. Schwab
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: February 24 2015
Hardcover: 400 Pages
Kell is one of the last Travelers—rare magicians who choose a parallel universe to visit.
Grey London is dirty, boring, lacks magic, ruled by mad King George. Red London is where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire. White London is ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne. People fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. Once there was Black London – but no one speaks of that now.
Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler, personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, carrying the monthly correspondences between royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell smuggles for those willing to pay for even a glimpse of a world they’ll never see. This dangerous hobby sets him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a dangerous enemy, then forces him to another world for her ‘proper adventure’.
But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive — trickier than they hoped.
Stand alone or series: First in a series
How did we get this book: ARCs from the publisher
Format (e- or p-): Ebook
In a world with parallel universes once ago there were four Londons but now there are only three. Dark London fell to dark magic and its doors are closed to the other worlds, all of its terrible magic locked away and mostly forgotten. Right next to Dark London stands White London, tasked against its will to keep the darkness at bay but its corrupting influence can be felt throughout. White London is unsafe, dangerous and getting darker and darker with the corrupt siblings that sit on its throne. This is Holland’s London.
Next to it, Red London is a paradise in comparison: Magic is mostly used in a good way and its Monarchs sit on a bloodless throne of benevolence. Kell belongs here.
Grey London is that one that forgot everything about magic. That’s our London. And Lila’s.
The doors between worlds are closed but for the few – the only two left in the worlds– special magicians who can wield blood magic to open those doors. Kell is one of them. Ostensibly a traveler i.e. a messenger between Kingdoms, occasionally a smuggler of forbidden artefacts, one day he gets one thing across into Red London that he shouldn’t have. Bad Kell. What a huge mistake – and that mistake might cost him everything.
A Darker Shade of Magic is a dark, grim book, full of violent, bloody magic, fantastic visuals and I loved it thoroughly because of its characters. They include a crossdressing wannabe pirate slash thief, a bisexual prince who likes to party just as much as he likes politics, a smuggler who can travel across dimensions and one dubious villain that pulled at my heart-strings so much I will be hoping for a redemption arc in the sequel somehow.
Actually, it’s been a while since I found myself so completely taken with people in books and it wasn’t until reading this book that I realised how much I missed this feeling. I often read for characters and these are exactly the type of characters I tend to fall in love with.
It was very early into A Darker Shade of Magic when I fell head over heels in love with them. Kell with his amazing coat of awesome that hides a yearning soul, Rhy and his shiny personality that hides a serious boy, Holland and his Dark Tortured Soul that hides…HELL, it hides HELL. And just as I starting to think – wow, this is a sausage-fest of a book – V.E. Schwab introduced a major viewpoint character and she was amazing. Lila, the crossdressing wannabe pirate who is an amazing thief and who hides nothing: she what she is and what she is a competent, joyous, snarky character who will do everything to live her life to the fullest and go places. Literally.
It is interesting to note that I am fully cognisant of the fact that most of the things I described about these characters and most of what happens to them, fall squarely into familiar territory. There is nothing new about the Special Magic Boy Who Has a Secret Past or the Tortured Villain Who Might Not Be As Bad Except For The Fact That He IS Bad or the Super Selfish Snarky Thief That Helps People In The End.
A Darker Shade of Magic manages to transmute all of this familiarity into something that I am able to fall back and enjoy in the way that the best fiction can do. The banter is fun, the emotions are flowing, the fight scenes left me tense because I didn’t know what would come out of them and the beautiful imagined parallel universes came to life in these pages. The latter happens in the way that the questions are asked: is Kell loved by his adoptive family or does he belong to the Royal family like a thing to be used? If everything is so good in Red London, how come the aristocracy are the only ones privileged enough? And my favourite question: is the fact that Holland has been coerced into doing horrible things enough to justify his redemption if it comes our way?
Sure, there are moments that could have been expanded on, sudden expression of romantic interested were just that – sudden – and then we have the violence.
I asked myself continuously, does this book revels in its violence? After all, the “darker” shade of magic is “dark” because it comes from blood magic and all the gory details that tend to accompany such a thing. Characters kill people almost remorselessly – and while I like that Lila was a whole lot more vicious than Kell, I wonder to what extent can we (should we? Must we?) call this book grimdark? I kept wondering: just because these characters are likeable and obviously have some sense of morals and ethics and are not complete bag of self-serving douchecanoes, can we hand-wave the fact that they are violent murderers and still root for them? I am not sure how to answer this question.
And then…we have the angst. If I wrote fanfiction, I would be all over the unsaid things and the remarkable tension between Rhy and Holland. They had one scene together overheard by someone else and yet. The possibilities, they are many. I am invested.
So my head canon for this series goes something like this: Lila takes over the four worlds, Kell finds out the truth of who he is and Holland, after a long redeeming arc, marries Rhy and they become the two kings of Red London. No one needs to kill anybody anymore or do blood magic. The end. I live happily ever after.
Earlier this week, Ana and I were discussing this book. More specifically, we were discussing how much both of us loved A Darker Shade of Magic – because both of us really do love it. And the best part about reading and discussing a book together is that we often find different things to love about said book. In the case of V.E. Schwab’s latest, I found myself invested in the characters (LILA FOREVER, sorry angsty dudes), but moreso in the impressive world building, hierarchies of power, and, yes, the bloody action throughout.
And, since Ana has already covered the remarkable characters – who are in fact a collection of familiar tropes, but who embody the best things about these tropes and transcend mere labels – so I will talk about what I loved the most in A Darker Shade of Magic. That is: the divided worlds, the brisk storytelling, and the bloody, delicious dark magic.
“There are four worlds,” he said. “Think of them as different houses built on the same foundation. They have little in common, save for their geography, and the fact that each has a version of this city straddling this river on this island country, and in each, that city is called London.”
These Londons are all very different from each other, each coded by Kell in different colors. Kell perceives them as: Grey London (Lila’s world, in which technology and humanity reign supreme and magic is naught but a fairy tale), Red London (his London, rich in magic and the most prosperous of the four worlds), White London (the most brutally affected world, in which magic is controlled and consumed and weakness is destroyed at all costs), and Black London (where magic reigned supreme and consumed its human hosts whole). But it gets better: from a geographical perspective, although every world has a different London called London, the rest of that world varies in size and shape, in smell and power. In Red London, for example, magic is taken from the Thames and a red sheen of magic lies over all. Red London is not a part of an analogous England, however; other than this one shared geographic feature, Kell’s world is one without an England or a France or any other familiar countries one would find in the Grey world.
Furthermore, while parallel universes aren’t a new concept, I love Schwab’s take on the linear geography of each world, the importance of perception that shapes these different realms, and the power hierarchies that determine strength and weakness in each. Not only do Grey, Red, White, and Black Londons exist in parallel worlds – they also occupy a linear space in Kell’s “House” analogy. In order to get to White London, one must first travel to Red London. in order to get to Black London – should anyone dare to try to open those sealed doors – one must travel to White London. The fact that White London has been leached of its color and vibrance and magic is because of its proximity to Black London (that was); when Red London closed its doors to the other worlds, it effectively left White to starve on its own, and Grey to remain blissfully ignorant and separate of its sister realms. Details like this are awesome. I only wish there was an interdimensional/world map to show these different Londons and surrounds (maybe next book?).
But even more awesome are the powers of perception and the rules of magic that govern these different realms. And the marvelous way that V.E. Schwab paints these rules is through the perceptions of Gray Londoner, Lila (my favorite character in the book, of course):
“You don’t know anything about these worlds,” he said, but the fight was bleeding out of his voice.
“Sure I do,” countered Lila cheerfully. “There’s Dull London, Kell London, Creepy London, and Dead London,” she recited, ticking them off on her fingers. “See? I’m a fast learner.”
When Lila – who is without magic, but fast on skill, street savvy, and deadly in her resolve – travels the worlds, it is her perceptions that add to the understanding of magic. She smells Kell’s magic (floral, fresh) and Holland’s (smoke and metal and ash); she marvels at the shimmer of red and the buzz of power than runs through Red London. She is our conduit to understanding the power that others live with every day, made all the more fascinating because as someone very attuned to being disenfranchised and without any safety or power, her interpretation of magic is markedly different from protagonist Kell’s. I loved these subtle changes in mood and thought very much, moving from each character’s perspective.
Too, I love the idea of magic and humanity at counter-measures in A Darker Shade of Magic – the notion that power and balance are needed in order to not just survive, but to thrive. Magic is neither inherently good or evil; it’s the examination of the power that comes with magic that is so fascinating to read (especially in a setting like White London, starved and sharp as it is). There is violence. There is blood. And there is magic that works its way through both.
Ana asked: does this book revel in its violence…can we hand-wave the fact that they are violent murderers and still root for them?
My response is, yes, of course we can still root for them, but no hand-waving is required. These are murderers and thieves and cutthroats and magicians of the highest and, ok, darkest order. They are hungry for power and exerting control. That doesn’t mean that we can’t root for them – even while accepting their violence.
I, for one, loved every bloody second of A Darker Shade of Magic – and I cannot wait for more.
This is V.E. Schwab’s finest work to date, edging out the superlative Vicious, and it is in the running for one of my favorite reads of 2015.
It’s an adventure of a book, and I’ll leave you with my favorite adventurous quote:
“I’m not afraid of dying. But I am afraid of dying here.” She swept her ahnd over the room, the tavern, the city. “I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.”
Kell wore a very peculiar coat.
It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.
The first thing he did whenever he stepped out of one London and 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. Not all of them were fashionable, but they each served a purpose. There were ones that blended in and ones that stood out, and one that served no purpose but of which he was just particularly fond.
So when Kell passed through the palace wall and into the anteroom, he took a moment to steady himself—it took its toll, moving between worlds—and then shrugged out of his red, high-collared coat and turned it inside out from right to left so that it became a simple black jacket. Well, a simple black jacket elegantly lined with silver thread and adorned with two gleaming columns of silver buttons. Just because he adopted a more modest palette when he was abroad (wishing neither to offend the local royalty nor to draw attention) didn’t mean he had to sacrifice style.
Oh, kings, thought Kell as he fastened the buttons on the coat. He was starting to think like Rhy.
Ana: 8 – Excellent
Thea: 8 – Awesomely Brilliant
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