It’s been a long while since I’ve picked up a fantasy book that I couldn’t put down. Often, I find that I run into world building or character development which seems forced, or the pacing is off. Then, I find that I’m putting the book down for a few days at a time (which is completely ludicrous for me when I’m actively reading) because I’m just not that into it. And yet, once I started A Darker Shade of Magic, I just couldn’t put it down.
I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.
One of the aspects that I find myself most drawn to in books is character development. And, in lieu of picking up the plot right away, V. E. Schwab spends a good portion of the first half of the book building out her characters and her worlds. Yes, worlds. You see, Kell is one of the last of the Antari, a magician who can use his blood to cast magics, including the magic to create doors between four parallel worlds. And, in all of them, a variation of London exists. Grey London is the London we know– London of 1819 as George III is descending into madness in his old age. Kell passes notes between monarchs: from Grey London to Red London, where Kell is from and magic is used (mostly) in a good way and their monarchs are benevolent. Then there is White London where magic is fading and those with the most power rule with an iron fist. This is because White London is closest to Black London, the world that fell to dark magic, and so all other worlds closed their doors to it. You must travel through the Londons in that order Grey – Red – White – Black, or vice-versa.
“You don’t know anything about these worlds,” he said, but the fight was bleeding out of his voice.
“Sure I do,” countered Lila cheerfully. “There’s Dull London, Kell London, Creepy London, and Dead London,” she recited, ticking them off on her fingers. “See? I’m a fast learner.”
Kell travels these worlds trading messages for monarchs, but he also picked up a bit of a dangerous hobby: Smuggling. It’s illegal to pass anything between the worlds, other than the monarch messages, and yet… Kell can’t help himself. And that’s how he ends up accidentally picking up a token from Black London and meeting Lila Bard, common thief.
Here is where things get interesting and our plot really takes off.
But the world building. I just can’t let it go. There are so many little details that provide secrets to the future and the direction I expect Schwab will take this book. It’s easy to visualize and understand the differences between these Londons Kell travels between. And that’s saying something for me– I don’t think in pictures. Yet, Schwab doesn’t talk down to her reader and doesn’t sell their intelligence short, so I found that if I wasn’t paying attention, I might have missed something to identify which London we are in, or even so far as that I almost missed Grey London was our world. To build up four completely different worlds simultaneously and make it look easy? Bravo, Schwab… Bravo.
“I’m not going to die,” she said. “Not till I’ve seen it.”
Her smile widened. “Everything.”
I’ve heard critics of this book look at A Darker Shade of Magic and say, “Yes, yes. I’ve seen this before. We have the Hero With A Secret Past and the Sexy Snarky Prince Who Isn’t As Bad As We Think and the Snape-Syndrome Badguy and the Thief Who Is Really Just Robin Hood… I get it. I’ve seen it.” And yes, you can read this book like that, if you’re a cynical humbug. But A Darker Shade of Magic is so much more than that.
Schwab takes us on a journey to ask us, “Is magic inherently good or evil? Or is a place is real because you experience it, or if a place is real because of how to perceive it? How do we determine hierarchy and power? And what is the difference between perception and rule?” For example, we get to know these worlds through the eyes of Kell, the Antari, who has never known anything other than these four Londons. He knows magic better than almost anyone, and he knows the dangers and histories of these worlds. Yet, you introduce street-savvy Lila, and suddenly his perceptions of what good and evil, safe and dangerous are completely changed. He’s been sheltered in his life as a messenger and had no idea until this moment.
It’s all about perspective.
Time isn’t the same for the mad or the blind.
Throughout this journey, we see a lot of darkness and violence. We witness a lot of desperation and sacrifice. It seems extreme upon reflection, but it all feels natural in the world Schwab has built for us readers. Plus, Lila… Lila is an incredible character. I cannot wait to see how she develops. I can’t wait to see how all our characters grow and develop over the course of these books. In fact, I have a feeling we have only begun to met our cast. Schwab has teased out characters, plot, and world-building and hooked me completely. I already know Shades of Magic will be a trilogy I will re-read for years to come.
“I apologize for anything I might have done. I was not myself.”
“I apologize for shooting you in the leg.” said Lila. “I was myself entirely.
I re-read A Darker Shade of Magic when the final book in the trilogy, A Conjuring of Light, came out at the end of February. I’ve been binge reading these books, as you can imagine, and it’s been a ton of fun. I cannot wait to finish A Conjuring of Light and to post my review of both A Gathering of Shadows, book two, and the finale. Stay tuned!
What do you think?
- Have you read any of the Shades of Magic books? What do you think of them?
- When was the last time you read a fantasy book which gripped you from page one to the end? What was it?
- What books have you read which captivated you through world-building?