Book Review: A Darker Shade of Magic (V. E. Schwab)

Review: A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab
Tor / A Darker Shade of Magic #1

“I’m not afraid of dying. But I am afraid of dying here.” She swept her hand over the room, the tavern, the city. “I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.”

Kell is one of the Travelers—people who can use magic to travel between parallel universes. He lives in Red London, where magic is bountiful, the monarchs beneficent, and life generally good. His counterpart Holland lives in White London, under the thumb of a brutal brother and sister and in a corrupt and cruel land. Kell’s new partner in crime, the thief Lila, is from Grey London—our London, more or less, magic-less and dull. And no one speaks of Dark London, the dead city that was sealed away, and whose nearness is what corrupts White London.

The idea of the four Londons—the crucial concept behind the book—is an excellent one. I feel like there is a fantastic foundation here for future books, because we spent most of our time in Red London and Grey London, whereas White and Black London were the ones I was most interested in seeing. Both make me think of Fallen London, the the game which has some of the most detailed, thorough, and vibrant world-building I’ve ever experienced. I think having that comparison made me want more out of White London; I wanted a better sense of the class and power structure and details of day to day life. But like I said, there is a lot of groundwork laid here that I am intrigued to see built on.

I feel similarly about the characters. I love them in theory… in particular Lila. I love that she’s a the crossdressing pirate (or soon-to-be pirate). I definitely have a soft spot for badass lady pirates. But I feel like her character journey was not as interesting as I wanted it to be. Or perhaps I have just read the story of snarky selfish thief hardened by life on the street who secretly has a heart of gold too many times. And Kell was similarly not as compelling as I hoped, and the semi-romantic moments between them didn’t seem organic or natural to me. (As always, though, take anything I say about romance with a grain of salt. A HUGE grain of salt.)

The one character that I thoroughly enjoyed was Holland, Kell’s White London counterpart. He was more complex, with complicated motivations and morals, more like the cast of multifaceted and provocative characters I was so fond of in Vicious.  I think we are moving towards that more nuanced understanding of morality towards the end of A Darker Shade of Magic, with questions raised about the ignorance and selfishness of the “good” rulers of Red London, and about Kell’s privilege in growing up there.

So on the positive side, this book had a lot of creative concepts, and was generally a highly entertaining read.  Ultimately, I feel like A Darker Shade of Magic had tropey characters and a predictable plot, but put together in a fun, exciting way… and a setting and system of magic that was remarkably original. I think a sequel that elevates those things will be super amazing. I’m definitely tuning in for book 2.

(There is a book 2 coming, right? Right?)

If you like __________, you should check out A Darker Shade of Magic:

  • Badass pirate ladies
  • Fun, fast-paced fantasy reads
  • Parallel universes
  • Interesting and unique settings and magic systems

If you dislike _____________, you might want to avoid A Darker Shade of Magic:

  • Violence
  • Relatively predictable characters and plot

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