“I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.”
I can barely even form the words to describe how much I loved this book. This book just BLEW. ME. AWAY.
For me, one thing that marks a good novel is how quickly it draws me in. And this one had me enthralled from the first page.
The plot centres on Kell, a magician who can travel between the various parts of his world. He is one of only two Antari left that can move between the four Londons; Red London, Kell’s home world, where magic is thriving and the city is in balance, Grey London where magic has ceased to exist, White London where the people fight for control overt the last diminishing swathes of magic, and Black London, that was sealed off when black magic all but destroyed by it.
I recently went to YALC and listened (rapturously) to VE Schwab speak about the creation of magic in her novels, and the way she constructs alternative Londons. In one of the panels she described the first thing she creates when constructing her novels: the world. Schwab explained how important it is for her to understand the world her characters live in before she creates the characters themselves and builds up the plot that they fit inside.
This is inherent in the way A Darker Shade of Magic unfolds, as the four Londons and their unequivocal differences are the catalyst for the plot and characters. What struck me most about the world of this story is its uniqueness. I’ve read about London more times than Beyonce has been called Queen, but I’ve never read about four Londons with differing layers of magic and magicians that can travel between them. The idea is such a simple one, and yet Schwab builds the world around it so brilliantly. The details of each different London are described fluidly and lyrically, making for a vibrant backdrop upon which the characters actions are painted.
The storytelling itself is incredible; the action scenes and fight sequences are heart-poundingly good and I found it effortlessly easy to see a fight was unfolding in my mind. A pitfall of many fantasy books is that their action sequences are so intense that the other scenes struggle to keep up, but A Darker Shade of Magic avoids this effortlessly. Every scene tells us something about the characters or adds to the world, deepening our understanding and attachment to this dynamic story.
The characters, too, are just captivating. It took me less than a chapter to become completely invested in Kell and everything he does. His outsider status and desire not to be treated differently due to power make him incredibly likable, and his bravery and sense of responsibility only added to that. There were times when I found myself clutching the book (and my heart) because I was so worried he was going to die. VE Schwab sure knows how to play with your heart.
And Lila. Lila was EVERYTHING. She was strong without being cliched, fiercely independent, and I adored her brand of wit. Her initiative and quick-thinking, combined with her acting and penchant for pick-pocketing, made her one of my favourite female characters in any books I’ve read recently. Her development from the beginning to the end of the book was just captivating.
I became really attached to Rhy’s character and hope to see much more of him in A Gathering of Shadows, and I enjoyed the fact that the Dane twins were actually evil. Often in fantasy (or indeed any) novels, the villains are a touch on the watery side; they’re present but they don’t actually pose a threat. This was absolutely not the case with Astrid and Athos Dane. There were so many times in the book when I found myself incredibly worried that they were going to win and were going to kill Kell, Lila and Rhy. Their machinations were clever and manipulative and I found them wholly worth as villains in this novel.
The interpersonal relationships between characters were just another high point. I loved Kell and Rhy’s relationship and found their brotherly bickering very endearing. More of that in book two please. I also enjoyed the way Lila and Kell grew to truly care for one another’s safety and Kell and Holland’s relationship was incredibly fraught and sad throughout the book.
The magic system was brilliantly crafted and ludicrously imaginative. The use of language was something else I, as a Linguist, adored. The linguistics nuances of each London and the fact that different languages held differing levels of status was realistic and spoke to my language-loving heart. The constant twists and changes in pace meant I was NEVER able to predict what was coming next.
This is almost definitely the best book I’ve read this year so far. Everyone should read this book.