Kell is one of the last travellers – magicians with a rare ability to travel between parallel universes connected by one magical city. There’s Grey London, without magic and ruled by mad King George III. Red London – where magic is revered and where Kell was raised alongside the heir to the empire. White London – where people fight to control the remaining magic and magic fights back. And once there was Black London…
I went into A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Shwab with expectations high. The hype for this one has been intense.
I don’t read a whole lot of fantasy. When I want to totally remove myself from the boring every day, I tend to reach for a sexy paranormal novel. While I can’t say that A Darker Shade of Magic has changed me into the avid fantasy reader so many other book bloggers are, it certainly sparked my curiosity.
The magical details were some of my favourite parts of this book. Kell has this coat which is somehow also many different coats. He can change to the style of whichever London he happens to be in simply by turning the thing inside out. Or outside in, depending on the circumstances.
I liked the brief moments in which magic had a voice. It was pure hunger and needed to consume without purpose or agenda. Its dogged and unrelenting want was intriguing to me. It made the magic – dark magic, I should say – that much more frightening; it wasn’t a person with motives you could question or a childhood worth analysing. No daddy issues could explain its need to devour all that was unlucky enough to find itself in its path. It’s frightening to face an uncomplicated evil.
The plot is sprawling and there is a lot to take in – three Londons’ worth – but Shwab navigates it in a way that is surprisingly free of info-dumping. Throughout this first in the series at least, Red London is the ‘best’ London. It has all the magic and the democracy. The complicated political situation (complete with murder-ey brother and sister king/queen team) in White London was interesting to me, as was the strange lack of magic in Grey London, both of which went largely unexplained beyond the whole it was because of Black London thing (it turned evil so they sealed it off and in doing so were also cut off from each other). Since this is the first in the series however, and there was a lot of ground to cover, my hope is that the other Londons will be explored in greater detail as the series progresses.
I liked A Darker Shade of Magic well enough, but I do wish I could have connected with the characters more. What I didn’t realise going in is that it’s written from various viewpoints, but primarily narration is shared between Kell, the magic guy, and Lila, a criminal with aspirations of piracy he accidentally pulls into his mess (and like most YA ladies, she goes along with the whole thing without asking half of the questions I would have). There was a hint of romance, but I didn’t really feel it. It manifested itself in a random kiss that to me at least, came from nowhere. The other central relationship in the book is Kell’s with his adoptive brother, Rhy.
(with all the talk concerning Rhy’s sexuality and him shoving Kell up against the wall the first scene we meet him, I will admit, I definitely misunderstood the way this relationship was going. They see each other as brothers. I was a little disappointed).
The relationship with Rhy is probably the most important in Kell’s life. Whenever there was drama involving Rhy, I felt anxiety for him and I definitely was hoping that he wouldn’t die, but overall he wasn’t in the story enough for me to really care about him. As in his relationship with Lila, Shawb told us that they cared rather than take the time to actually make me feel it.
This might not be a problem for everyone. This isn’t a short read, and as a fantasy novel it is plot, rather than character driven. It was frustrating for me, being, as I always have been, much more interested in the people catching the murderer than the way he gets caught.
Despite my reservations, I likely will continue with the series. The Neil Gaiman comparisons aren’t unfounded. Plus I really like the idea that Lila is going to become a pirate. I want to read what that looks like.