"The bones are the same in every world," he said, gesturing to the city, "but the rest of it will be different. As different as this world is from yours." He pointed across the river, and toward the centre of London. "Where we're going, the castle is there. Athos and Astrid will be there too.Once we cross through, stay close. Do not leave my side. It is night here, which means it is night in White London, too, and the city is full of shadows." Kell looked at Lila. "You can still change your mind."
Lila straightened and tugged up the collar of her coat. She smiled. "Not a chance."
- A Darker Shade of Magic, 328
A Darker Shade of Magic is a fast-paced fantasy novel that drags you between three different worlds, all very different from each other and with only one big thing in common: they all have parallel Londons.
We'll start with a quick synopsis:
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 went into A Darker Shade of Magic with high expectations. It’s always popping up on Bookstagram and as a fantasy lover, I felt like it was a good choice for my next read. And I wasn't disappointed!
Schwab creates a compelling, fascinating universe with her Londons. It has many markings of a strong fantasy novel; I loved the world-building, Schwab’s iteration of magic, and all the little details that made each place feel alive and full. And I loved that the book was a bit dark; there aren’t easy answers or easy ways to deal with things. I mean, for the most part. The glaring counter to that is that the whole plot revolves around trying to return a dark, forbidden object to a dark, forbidden place. That’s pretty straightforward. So it wasn’t exactly a complex plot, but the adventure along the way set up a really interesting world and really interesting problems that I’d be very happy to spend more time with.
Of the Londons, I found Black London to be the most interesting all, but maybe that’s because we never get to see it. The mystery! Red London was a close second, but Schwab does an excellent job developing all the Londons, leaving you feeling like there’s always more to explore and learn.
Surprisingly, the plot actually took a while to get off the ground. We're given a lot of time to get to know Kell and Lila separately, but it felt natural, not slow. And it was all the more satisfying once the plot started coming together faster and faster, until you're completely sucked into the mystery surrounding the stone and the associated concept of dark magic.
Dark magic isn’t exactly anything “new” in fantasy, but Schwab does a good job with it. It perfectly suits the characters she has and the stories she’s trying to tell.
Speaking of characters, I really liked Kell and Holland. I’m sure this is in part because of their whole blood magic thing, but also because I felt they were well-crafted; Kell was empathetic and it was enjoyable to see his development as things got tougher and tougher for him. Holland is also a character with compelling motivations and an interesting backstory, and I really enjoyed the more subtle moments he had in the book.
I felt a bit differently about characters like Rhy and Lila. Rhy was basically that flirty bisexual character trope, willing to bat his eyelashes at anyone, any time—but who also, despite his immense privilege that he's barely aware of, has a truly good heart and is beloved by everyone. He wasn’t unlikeable, but because he wasn’t given much time to be fleshed out, I couldn’t help feeling like, well, seen this bisexual side character before.
Lila was well done, but she wasn’t easy to like. Honestly, I just didn’t like her. For a character who leads a rough life fighting poverty and sexism and host of other challenges, I found her to be a surprisingly unsympathetic character. I liked that she was ambitious and courageous, but she was also selfish and reckless and I only really rooted for her because her enemies were often worse than herself—which felt like setting the bar a little low! The few moments where she appears to have a baseline sense of justice feel almost out of place given how often she thoughtlessly treats people she doesn’t know. She does go through some character development, but even at the end I was left hoping she’d become more likeable main character in the rest of the series.
I understand that Schwab likely made Lila intentionally unsympathetic to make her more complicated (interesting?), and I can appreciate the sentiment—but I also think it prevented me from really connecting with her as a character. I couldn’t even feel good for her during the final pages of the book. I wonder if that's just me, though!
Overall, Schwab created a captivating story. Despite any misgivings I had for some of the characters, I enjoyed seeing where the story took them. It was a great adventure and one of the better fantasy novels I’ve read in some time. If you’re at all a fan of the genre, I highly recommend A Darker Shade of Magic and can confidently say that I’ll be purchasing the second book soon!
PS: A note on the writing: Schwab uses an excessive amount of commas and parentheses in her writing, to the point where it became distracting for me… but from what I know, not everyone is bothered by it! I didn’t take it into account when rating it, but just thought it was worth an acknowledgement here.
PPS: Also, I bought the collector's edition of A Darker Shade of Magic, which includes fan art on the end papers, an interview with Schwab and her editor, a glossary of Arnesian terms, and short bonus scenes from the Shades of Magic world. Totally worth it!