Well, this category for my Year of Fun Reading Challenge had quite a few options for me! My Kindle and bookshelves are groaning with books I have bought with great excitement but haven’t read yet. Good thing I have decided to only review speculative fiction books for this challenge, or I would be in real trouble.
In looking through my To Be Read pile, I found A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic, Book 1), by V.E. Schwab, and immediately knew this was the one.
For one thing, it takes place in London, one of my favourite cities in the world. But it’s not quite the London we know. In this world, there are four Londons, Red, Grey, White, and Black. Grey London is “our” London, where most people are unaware of the existence of the others, or that magic is even possible.The book is set in the reign of mad George III, adding historical details to this rich fantasy, which also pulled it to the top of my list of books I haven’t read yet. Historical fantasy? Set in London? I’m in!
Grey London is dirty and boring, lacking hardly any magic. Red London is called Arnes by the people there, ruled by the Maresh Dynasty, a place where magic is commonplace and revered. White London is a dangerous place, ruled by a succession of kings and queens who murder their way to the top. People here fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city of colour and life. Black London is cut off from all the other worlds, for their safety, for something terrible happened there once, and to open the locked door that leads there will bring that terror to the rest of the worlds.
Kell, the main character, was raised in Red London, and is an Antari – a magician with the rare ability to travel between all the worlds. Kell is an adopted son of the royal family and due to his ability to travel between the various worlds he is an ambassador, carrying correspondence between the three kingdoms.
He also plays a dangerous game as a smuggler, bringing magical artifacts and other items between the Londons, and it is this activity that brings him into danger when he accepts a commission from a stranger to deliver a letter, and discovers she has given him a powerful magical stone instead, an artifact from Black London that he must return to that closed world or bring disaster to the others.
This brings him into conflict with Holland, an Antari from White London who serves that Kingdom; his adopted Royal family, who both respect and fear Kell for his rare ability to Travel; the evil and sadistic King and Queen of White London, twins who have a secret of their own that will bring disaster to Kell and those he love; and finally, to Delilah (Lila) Bard, a cut-purse in Grey London who steals the stone but also saves Kell’s life.
I loved the world-building in this book. The distinctions between the worlds are clear, and the descriptions of them fascinating. The characters are interesting and complex. Lila veers into cookie-cutter “badass girl” territory but there’s more to her than that, and I particularly enjoyed seeing how the relationship between her and Kell grows and changes throughout the book.
Schwab is a good writer. The first paragraph of the book immediately pulled me in:
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.
I admire this beginning, and not only because it’s intriguing. Notice how it also tells you several things about this book and about the main character, all in a few words. There’s magic (cool!), travelling between Londons (? what? what’s that?), and a main character who obviously has a need to blend in at times and stand out at others (hmm, now what’s that about?). And, perhaps he is a little bit vain, or at least aware of his appearance, as indicated by that last phrase.
There’s a lot to learn here about how to tweak interest and keep your reader turning the pages, no?
This is an adult historical fantasy, and that made me happy! I have written before about my general dislike of young adult books, so it was great to have a book that was firmly in the adult camp (although I do see it described as YA in places). The one quibble I would have with the book is that I wished it was longer, and that Schwab would have taken a little more time in showing us the worlds and deepening the characters. I would have liked to have spent more time there! This has the feel of a Young Adult book, however, in terms of length and in how we don’t get to linger too long in any one place in the plot. But the subject matter is quite dark at times, and thankfully there is no teenage girl having adult sexual relationships with older men or warrior-chicks in the midst of a love triangle in this book. Phew.
Thankfully this is the first book of the trilogy. We get a good introduction to the characters and to the worlds, the story moves along nicely and leaves us wanting more. I will definitely be checking in with Kell and Lila to see how this all turns out in the other two books, A Gathering of Shadows and A Conjuring of Light.
My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars. This would be a 5 star rating from me if Schwab would have developed this a little more and made it just a bit more meaty. But on the whole, this was a great read.