V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic collects all the building blocks of a great fantasy novel, but mostly leaves them on a shaky foundation. At times, the pieces come together, teasing the reader with apparitions of a grand storytelling fortress built on strong characters and expert world-building. Instead, I left the book wondering whether a structure comprising those fantasy building blocks would stand long enough to entice me into the sequel.
The book kicks things off with ample promise, backed by vivid characterization and sharp descriptions of the world. Kell, one of two protagonists, is also one of two remaining Antari, a magician able to travel between Londons (more on that soon). Lila, our second protagonist, is a pickpocket who’s down on her luck and thirsty for adventure. Kell and Lila are thrown into a haphazard journey through various Londons after Kell is attacked by mysterious beings and the two encounter a very suspicious magical object that oozes evil. The story pits royalty against royalty, brother against brother, and, at times, Kell against Lila. None of the main plot points sounds particularly original on paper—a powerful wizard/last of a dying breed, a thief who wonders if there’s a better life out there, and a suspicious/probably evil magical object—but the characters are built with a steady, well-written hand that exudes charm. Schwab wastes no effort in engaging the reader and encouraging investment in the story’s characters.
London plays host to the narrative, but it’s not just one London. Three iterations of the glorious city feature prominently—Grey, Red, and White London—while the fourth (Black London) has fallen, with only charred remnants in its wake. Grey London is “our” London, or “normal” London, if you will, and knows nothing of the others save for the occasional whisper. Red and White exist in separate worlds completely but share awareness of the other Londons. As mentioned Earlier, Kell is one of two remaining magicians who can travel between Londons at will.
While the premise proves interesting, the narrative is hindered by sheer scope. The story traverses the three existing Londons much like Kell can, introducing new characters, more information on how magic works in each, and some history. This becomes a problem, though, because the plot is spread so thin across these various locales and characters that nothing feels deeply explored or explained. For example: magic is used throughout by many characters, but never is there a definitive answer to how exactly it works or where it comes from. Typically, I’m not a stickler for rules surrounding magic in fantasy worlds. But when various characters use magic to different degrees and different results, it’s easy for the reader to feel uninitiated. Similar plot points feel needlessly stretched to fit this structure—about 150 pages in, I asked myself out loud “Has anything even happened yet?” With so much time spent describing what the world is and now how it works, I left wanting more.
Even if I set aside its meandering nature, the plot still feels thin. So much of the story dedicates its time to describing the characters and making them as believable as possible within this larger-than-life world. When enormous effort is expended creating characters who have nothing substantial to do, it’s a losing scenario. The prime example here is when Kell and Lila meet and begin their tenuous partnership. Any page that includes the two of them spends 80 percent of its time letting them banter needlessly. It’s as if Schwab wants so badly to convince us that her characters have a fun, bickering-married-couple vibe that she forgets to give them purpose.
Due to the issues above, I was left thinking about the plot in a weird, unnerving way. I understood and fairly accurately remember the main plot points even a week after finishing the book, but I haven’t the slightest idea in which order they occurred. Every major story beat blends in with the others, creating a sloppy amalgamation of plot devices that don’t actually matter. On that note, the novel’s latter half builds to a conclusion that, if you ask me, made little sense and was largely unearned. Very few of the revelations made much sense, and my “Oh, that’s the villain” realization ended in a disappointed question mark for me, rather than a shocked exclamation point paired with a gasp. In other words, I spent much of my time wondering who, of this glorious cast of characters, was the real bad guy, and the reveal proved disappointing. When a beautifully written cast falls this flat during such a reveal, your book has problems.
Where Darker Shade finds its footing, it shines. In particular, Schwab’s investment in her characters is brightly apparent from the very outset. Even small, nameless side characters get careful treatment, and the result is an astounding array of thieves, magicians, magicless humans on the hunt for just a quick taste of something supernatural, believable bar owners, shitty landlords, and brutal dictators. Everyone is given their due, and the cast of characters benefits greatly from Schwab’s deft writing.
The same, fortunately, is true of the settings. Though they create numerous problems within the narrative, Red, White, and Grey London each feel unique in their own way. Grey London is charmingly familiar, with hints of magic seeping in through Schwab’s descriptions of its residents. White London syphons the life out of its inhabitants, and the writing reflects that—I felt drained of energy after page-long journeys through the brutally masochistic world. Red London glows with magic and benevolence, highlighted by Kell’s obvious love for home. Even Black London, which we never see outright, boasts and exotic allure, like Hades’ underworld in Greek myth. It’s tangible and close, but we may never truly understand it.
Darker Shade is by no means a bad book. But it could be much better. It suffers from issues that plague many fantasy outings, and it overstays its welcome. Despite the length, the ending felt unearned and underexplained. Suffice it to say that, as a first outing in a new, intrepid magical world, A Darker Shade of Magic rests far from perfect status. Instead, it’s a middle-of-the-road tale bolstered by downright fantastic and memorable character work. Kell and Delilah are fitting hosts to the various Londons within, and the supporting cast equally intrigues. Despite my gripes and sometimes-harsh criticisms, I’m captivated enough to continue the series in hopes that the second installment will right the wrongs of the first.
Rating: A Darker Shade of Magic – 5.5/10