A Romp Between Londons: A Review of A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade of Magic (2016)
Written By: V.E. Schwab
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 416 (Trade Paperback)
Series: Shades of Magic (Book 1)
Publisher: Tor Books

Why I Chose It: I’ve walked past the sequel to this book in the library half a dozen times, the cover and title grabbing my attention. And each time I picked it up and said, “Oh, this looks good,” before remembering “That’s right, there’s a first one.” So, I finally found the first one. Its cover is just as captivating, by the way.

The Premise:

Kell is one of the last Antarimagicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black.

Kell was raised in ArnesRed Londonand officially serves the Maresh Empire as an ambassador, traveling between the frequent bloody regime changes in White London and the court of George III in the dullest of Londons, the one without any magic left to see.

Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.

After an exchange goes awry, Kell escapes to Grey London and runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.

No Spoilers!

Discussion: This book starts with a description of a coat. It shouldn’t work, it should be boring, but it’s so not. The coat itself is unique and interesting, and Schwab’s language and voice caught my attention right off the bat. It was this language — simple yet beautiful — that drew me page after page, before the story even really began and the characters had a chance to grab me. I found myself flying through this book simply because I found it so easy to read.

I’m really drawn to stories with a mixture of dark magic and ideal heroes. Kell is a great example of this. He is complex and makes mistakes, but at the same time he is humble and good, and I wanted him to win so much. He knows what’s right and important, and when lives and the fate of the world are at stake he does what he has to do to save them.

Standing opposite him is Lila Bard, a no-nonsense thief and sometimes murderer. She does what she has to do to survive and in no way can be considered good (at least not in the beginning). But I ended up liking her almost as much as Kell. She knows what she wants and pursues it with a will even when it’s not what society would approve of. I think normally I would find her abrasive, but her dark humor and the way she is drawn to doing the right thing against her better judgement save her from the stigma of “unlikable characters.” Not to mention the consternation she inspires in Kell every time their goals clash. The interaction between the two of them was just so much fun to watch.

Just like her characters, Schwab has a deft hand with familiar fantasy tropes. The magic portal story can easily be repetitive or too simplistic, a cheap device to launch a non-magical character into a magical setting. But the idea of parallel Londons and their striking differences made this portal fantasy stand out almost immediately. With just a few simple descriptions and splashes of vivid color, Schwab made the story as visual as it was visceral. A similar trap could have been the magic stone/ring/artifact trope. When this showed up I almost rolled my eyes, but Schwab skirts the edges of overdone and manages to shove us into creepy and compelling. I loved the way she twisted expectations, and the person who could best withstand the “bad magic” wasn’t the super awesome magician. It was the absolutely normal thief because she forced it into a role she could understand and dealt with it on her own terms and strengths.

And can I just say I love epic fantasy novels that end? I guess I’m just not that into the big door stoppers that go on and on for book after book, like the author forgot that stories are supposed to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. I don’t want to be forced to read ten beefy books just to find out what happens, but I want there to be more just in case I’m not done with the world. Too picky? Schwab didn’t think so. A Darker Shade of Magic was just about perfect in that regard. It stands alone. The main conflict was resolved but there are plenty of other mysteries to explore and the characters are moving in new directions that we can totally follow into new stories if we are so inclined. And like Lila, I would love to see more of the worlds beyond London.

That might be my only complaint. This story was so focused that we only caught glimpses of the rest of the world and the magic that was so vital to its prosperity and loss. A few things could have been better explained or fleshed out, but in this case I don’t think the book suffered for it. And it just drives me to pick up more of Schwab’s work.

In Conclusion: I kind of wish I’d written this book. It seemed tailor-made for me, and I’m excited to follow Lila into adventure and discover Kell’s history, so you can bet I’ll be picking up the second book, A Gathering of Shadows. Anyone want to join me on a romp between Londons?


  • Casey September 6, 2017 at 2:05 pm

    You have inspired me to pick this back up! I got stalled in the middle and haven’t touched it in weeks. Time to dive back in!

  • Lane Robins September 6, 2017 at 3:03 pm

    I’m probably one of the few who read this and just didn’t connect to it. I really loved Vicious which had such a vivid narrator. I think I expected more of the same and it wasn’t that I didn’t like Kell as much as I didn’t really feel like I ever knew him. Great writing though, and I love the world-building. I’ll be there to see what she does with her next series.


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