A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab. Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis

A Darker Shade of Magic: A Novel (Shades of Magic)
A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab. Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis. Hardcover (ISBN 0765376458) Tor Books, February 24 2015 – 400 pages. Also available as an e-book.

In sharp contrast to the real-world super-villainy of her first book, V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic is an exhilarating fantasy adventure that ranges across multiple worlds, all of them linked by the city of London–the single constant in every world. The result is a dazzlingly stylish and inventive fantasy, perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman and Ellen Kushner.

Kell, the magician-hero, turns his fabulously magical coat inside-out again and again to suit each different world’s fashions as he leads the reader between dimensions, from Grey London, the magic-free Regency-era London of our world, to the Red London of his world–where magic is kept harmoniously in balance–and to the violent and magic-hungry White London, whose psychopathic rulers are eager for new territory. And then, of course, there’s the terrifying legend of Black London, the world that magic devoured.…

Kell is an Antari, one of a few people whose blood makes them capable of passing between worlds. Like the other Antari, he is used as a messenger between the royal families of three worlds, passing messages between his own foster parents (the royal king and queen of Red London) to mad King George III and the Prince Regent of Grey London, and to the vicious twins Athos and Astrid Dane, who rule White London. Athos and Astrid have tortured their own magical messenger into enslaved submission, but Kell on the other hand was taken in as a foster-son by the royal couple in his world and is treated as a beloved member of their family.

However, Kell’s past is shrouded in ominous secrets. There are hints that his royal foster-parents may have shown just as much ruthless self-interest as Athos and Astrid in the way that they acquired him from his birth family. Kell loves his foster-brother, Prince Rhy, and he genuinely cares for his foster-parents, but the frightening mysteries in his past, and the ambiguity of his relationship to his new family, have led to a lingering resentment that flowers into rebellion. Nothing but the royal letters are meant to pass between worlds but Kell has become an adept smuggler, breaking the law purely for the thrill of his secret rebellion. It is that rebellion that leads to disaster when he finds himself in possession of a forbidden relic from Black London, an object with deadly powers that Athos and Astrid would do anything to acquire, and something that is almost immediately stolen from him by a thief in Grey London who has more magic than she realizes.

Lila Bard is a street-thief who dreams of becoming a pirate queen. Bold, bright, amoral, and reckless, she leaps into the adventure with utter delight. Once she learns about the existence of other, more magical worlds, she’s determined to become Kell’s partner in the adventure as part of her own quest for a richer, more exciting life. But the streets of Grey London are already becoming infected with a toxic magic from the relic that she and Kell carry, and numerous enemies are determined to stop them from disposing of it.

As Kell’s coat shifts color again and again, Schwab continues to pull out more elegant tricks of her own. The writing sparkles, the magical world-building is rich and imaginative, and there’s a real sense of wonder to the magical incidents throughout. Several of the scenes with the relic in our non-magical Grey London are so genuinely unnerving as well as magical that, while being wholly original, they’re beautifully reminiscent of Neil Gaiman in his Neverwhere days.

If there is a weakness in the book, it’s the fact that Lila–the second most central character–is so clearly not a real nineteenth-century woman. She is a fabulous heroine, full of style, verve and ambition, along with real, painful vulnerabilities, but there is nothing in either her language or her mindset that makes her feel like she was born at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She calls things “creepy” and orders Kell to “Keep it together!” with the phrasing of a woman who’s grown up speaking English in the late twentieth century. Not only does she not share predominant nineteenth-century beliefs or a Regency-era view of the world–which would be perfectly fair, as many real people of the period didn’t–she also doesn’t react against those cultural restrictions, which makes her far less convincing. As a character from a different world, or from a substantially altered version of our own world, she would have been perfect–but as the one representative of the real nineteenth century, she’s entirely implausible.

So it’s a testament to V.E. Schwab’s writing that Lila is still such an enormously fun and sympathetic character, as is Kell. Their adventure takes them spinning between brilliantly developed magical worlds, their enemies are genuinely frightening, and their strengths and weaknesses complement each other perfectly. This book ends with enough closure to be satisfying, but it leaves open several paths for adventure in the upcoming sequel. Fans of beautiful writing and exciting fantasy adventures won’t want to miss it.

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