A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic #1) by V.E. Schwab
Published February 24th 2015 by Tor Books
Kell is one of the last Antari—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black.
Kell was raised in Arnes—Red London—and officially serves the Maresh Empire as an ambassador, traveling between the frequent bloody regime changes in White London and the court of George III in the dullest of Londons, the one without any magic left to see.
Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.
After an exchange goes awry, Kell escapes to Grey London and runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.
Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.
I’m something like two years late to the party, but oooooh wow. Dang. All that hype? They aren’t lying – A Darker Shade of Magic is really, really good.
There’s something about the author’s writing that I love. I’m usually a huge fan of delicate descriptions and subtleties weaved into prose, and while it’s not quite like that – the author’s writing is a lot more matter-of-factual – there’s something about it that just works really well, especially with stories of this sort. It’s the ordinary undertone she takes while telling fantastical stories, I think, and the way she moves the story so fluidly from being gentle and quirky and whimsical to uncertainty and despair. The former bit like so:
“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.”
The story is also pretty fucking cool, and the execution lives up to expectations. There are many Londons! Magical Londons! Non-magical Londons! Crumbling Londons! Pirates and whimsical magic and chess pieces and curious stones and masquerade parties and traveling smuggling princes and! I! Just! It’s a little strange and a little out there but it worked, and it made for an incredibly interesting read.
The characters were just the same, from Kell – a little curious, a little cool, and a little morally gray, taking with him elements of the author’s other book, Vicious, which may be one of my all-time favorite reads – to Lila, who was self-confident and brave and determined, though it did take me a bit to warm up to her (her introduction wasn’t exactly the most endearing of scenes). There’s also Astrid Dane and Athos Dane, both chilling and unflinching and villains to the bone and Rhy, the prettily charming and charmingly pretty prince. And Holland, who, at first glance, seems like the stone-cold foil to Kell, but! It’s a V. E. Schwab book, so everyone’s vulnerable and nothing’s as it seems and so of course shit happens and of course I feel partial to Holland and of course my taste in characters is equal parts terrible and untimely. 🙂
I do wish there was a glossary of sorts at either the beginning or end of the book, though, with some of the Antari phrases and their meanings. I’m a little slow at remembering that kind of stuff, and a lot of the book would read so much smoother and engaging if I knew what the characters were saying and what they meant when they said it, rather than having to pause every once in a while to flip back to the beginning to look for an explanation.
The ending’s unexpectedly satisfying for a book that’s the first in a series – no cliffhanger! Which, in theory, means you could just stop here. The real question is, why would you?
(Also, um. I. Really want that coat?)