LitStack Review: A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab

by Sharon Browning
A Darker Shade of MagicA Darker Shade final for Irene
V. E. Schwab
Tor Books
Release Date:  February 24, 2015
ISBN 978-0-7653-7645-9

London is such a touchstone for magic and magical things.  Whether it be the environ of Harry Potter’s Ministry of Magic or the setting for Marie Brennan’s Onyx Court, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Charlie Fletcher’s Oversight series, or even Paul Cornell’s contemporary police team investigating the supernatural amongst us, London has been the destination of choice for many thrilling mystical adventures.

Now, with V. E. Schwab’s stunning new novel A Darker Shade of Magic, we are able to explore not one, but four Londons, each existing apart from but connected to each other, at the center point of four different lands and experiences.

There is Grey London, a drab place with no magic and a senile old king who seems lost in his memories of what once was; Red London which is colorful and vibrant and chock full of magic; and White London, a cold, brutal city where magic is used as a cruel tool to gain and hold power.  Then there is Black London – or at least there was a Black London, once, but no one speaks of it now.  Very few citizens of each London know of the existence of the others, save for their respective sovereigns and the two men known as Antari, or “travelers”, who can use magical tokens and spells that allow them to travel between each, carrying messages between rulers.

In truth, none knew what led to the birth of an Antari.  Some believed that it was random, a lucky throw of dice.  Others claimed that Antari were divine, destined for greatness.  Some scholars, like Tieren, believed that Antari were the result of transference between the worlds, magic of different kinds intertwining, and that that was why they were dying out.  But no matter the theory on how they came to be, most believed that Antari were sacred.  Chosen by magic or blessed by it, perhaps.  But certainly marked by it.

Kell is one such traveler, a fun loving young fellow, and it is mainly his tale that we follow in A Darker Shade of Magic.  Attached to Red London’s Maresh empire, he has been brought up in the palace of the King and Queen, serving not only as messenger, but also as a surrogate brother to the puckish Prince Regent Rhy.  It is Kell who has assigned the colors to the different Londons, based on his first hand knowledge of each.

But Kell has a secret pursuit:  he’s also a smuggler.  He brings small items, trinkets, into magic-parched Grey London to trade with the few Collectors and Enthusiasts there, those who retain the knowledge of a time when travel between the Londons was common for anyone “with a bit of magic in their veins and a token from another world”.  In return he acquires small items that are not magical in nature, but which are cleverly designed with crankshafts and cogs and ingenuity.  He knows that passing such tokens between worlds is expressly forbidden, but it thrills him to do so, and he figures that they do not do any harm.

In time, though, he will learn just how wrong he is, and just how dangerous his little hobby has become.

A Darker Shade of Magic is also the story of Delilah Bard – Lila – a streetwise cutpurse (with dreams of being a pirate) in Grey London whose motto is “if a thing was worth having, it was worth taking.”  She runs into Kell – quite literally – and does what she always does:  takes advantage of the situation to line her pocket. But this time she has purloined more than she bargained for, and after Kell tracks her down – and saves her life – the two embark on a deadly adventure that chases them across all the Londons, testing their wits, their resolve, and their will to survive.

But don’t be misled – A Darker Shade of Magic is no madcap magical adventure.  There is definitely a playful element to it, and a cheeky wit in the writing that is both delightfully inviting and disarming.  The characters throughout – Kell, Lila, Rys – have a charm to them that is incredibly enticing.  But there is a vicious edge to this book, as well; a lurking aspect of brutality that lies at the heart of any ruthless ambition or thirst for power and vengeance.

Author Schwab masterfully knits together both enchantment and bloodlust in such as way to keep the reader on the edge of their seat, and to drive the story into unexpected twists and turns.  As the action ratchets up and the tale unfolds, so do the layers of the different Londons and their people, enveloping the reader in an ever expanding complexity that is rich and unifying, and absolutely integral to the urgency of the story; this the epitome of a “fantasy thriller.”  Ms. Schwab does indeed possess a unique and compelling talent.

In fact, Ms. Schwab’s Londons are simple enough in concept yet complex enough in detail as to supply her with any number of entertaining stories.  Regardless of the outcome of Kell and Lila, here’s hoping that we see more of this imaginative take on the mystical city – or cities – where magic hums on so many levels, just waiting to be tapped.

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