Blurb for A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
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 tell you, I am catching up on my TBR list. This one has also been on the radar for several years, since I saw it in Coles when it came out. The series has continued and gotten a bit of traction, so I definitely still wanted to get on it.
I came into this pretty bare of expectations, which I think helped its case with me. I enjoyed the worldbuilding, the bit of history involving the four Londons, and how the Antari came to be. The lore is built up steadily throughout, without ever becoming noticeably info-dumpy. I liked Kell as a protagonist; he’s subtly rebellious, smart, tenacious, and has conflicts with his position and identity. And he has cool threads and smells like flowers, what can I say? Although Lilah, our second protagonist, initially struck me as pretty cardboard, she got a bit more explanation later that helped me understand why she comes off that way. I’ll accept it for now, though I think certain elements that have been seeded in her personality and motivation need to get good development and payoff in later books in order to make her a really lifelike and likable character.
The writing is pretty standard in the sense that nothing really leaped out at me as extraordinarily good, nor bad. It served the story to keep things moving without snagging on flowery phrasing or awkward prose, and I appreciate it for what it is—a plot-driven story that doesn’t get too caught up in the internal conflict or nuances of character development. There is some attention to characters or we wouldn’t have any investment in the outcome, but it stems directly from and into the plot, for the most part, instead of taking a sideline from it. There is also, of course, some necessary descriptive world-building that established each of the Londons and gave them a really distinctive feel from one another, beyond their aesthetic and down to their auras. But it never reached an encyclopedic level of description so that the story ground to a halt while we had the picture painted for us, and I appreciate that.
As for perspective, the story is mainly from Kell’s or Lilah’s POV, but here and there is a scene with some bystander observing something in order to inform the reader. Initially I didn’t mind this writing device—it was short and the information important enough—but some perspective choices later on did seem to me to be superfluous and could have easily been cut with no detriment to the story, because they didn’t go on to serve a critical purpose. One of them gave a none too positive insight into Kell’s past character, which I thought would actually have some sort of consequence in the story, but whatever slight conflict it created quickly dissipated. I guess there’s room for it to come back in later books.
The main conflict is pretty obvious, but the method and strategy behind it gave the unfolding enough suspense to be interesting. That’s not to say I wouldn’t have liked it to be more subtle or have more nuance. For instance, there was a point in the story when I was convinced that Kell’s brother was responsible for burning down a pub, but with totally understandable reasons, and totally in keeping with hints I thought I had picked up about his character. I was prepared to be shocked and horrified when the betrayal was revealed, but instead the obvious villain was, once again, the one responsible. Because, villainy. I still think there is room for the relationship between Kell and his brother to be developed into something more interesting, given their new connection at the close of this book, so I hope to see more of it.
To give the villains their due, though obvious as the nose on my face, there was a bit of conflict built into the dynamic, as one of the villains was essentially being controlled by the others against his will. So, I guess there’s some nuance? Is it enough though? I don’t know. I generally liked it, as I’m always a sucker for a good conflicted villain compelled to do terrible things against their will, à la Murtagh from the Inheritance Cycle, but it was also a bit out of nowhere, and because we didn’t know much about how the character was before he got controlled, it made it harder to sympathize with his plight now. I would have appreciated more of Kell’s memories of how this man used to be (presumably he knew him before? That’s what I gathered, anyway, though the timeline was a little unclear) in order to highlight exactly what being controlled has reduced him to. We need a nice “before” picture in order to appreciate the “after.”
In general, I enjoyed the world and characters enough that I want to keep reading this series. It’s one of the most enjoyable action-based stories I’ve read in a long time and I expect a lot of setup has been established for some high-stakes plots in the next two books. I also have to keep reading to see if my two predictions are right:
Prediction 1: Lilah is actually Antari, and the untitled map she has is a map of Black London. (I realise this is probably not a very risky prediction, as it was foreshadowed pretty heavily. But hey, it could be a complete red herring.)
Prediction 2: The other Antari Holland is not dead and will return along with Black London. (Again, probably not a risky prediction, as it is a pretty common fantasy trope that unless you see a cold, dismembered corpse [and sometimes even then], chances are the character is not dead and will pop up later at a crucial moment or in another form.)
Feel free to correct me in the comments if you’ve read the series and I’m way off; I don’t mind spoilers, I’ll probably have forgotten them by the time I read the next books.