Title: A Darker Shade of Magic
Author: V.E. Schwab
Published: February 24, 2015
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Quick Synopsis: Kell is one of the last travelers–magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes connected by one magical city. There’s Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, and with one mad King–George III. Red London, where life and magic are revered–and where Kell was raised alongside Rhy Maresh, the roguish heir to a flourishing empire. White London–a place where people fight to control magic and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London. But no one speaks of that now. Officially, Kell is the Red traveler, ambassador of the Maresh empire, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. 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. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, 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. (Goodreads)
My Thoughts: I haven’t had so much to say about a book in a long time, which is why it’s taken me ages to finally sit down and write this. I honestly just don’t even know where to begin. A Darker Shade of Magic is the first book in an adult fantasy trilogy that I’m sure most of you have at least heard of, if not read already. Ever since I devoured This Savage Song, I’ve wanted to pick up more Schwab books, and this one was my first priority because it sounded like something sooo down my alley. Through the excitement, however, I’ll say I have seen some mixed reviews (at least for this first installment), so I was also a bit nervous. I didn’t want another case of hype giving me too high of expectations, which seems to happen all too often. I’m glad I gave this book a chance despite the hype, though, because this book was, excuse the pun, simply magical. As I occasionally do when I have a lot to say, I’m going to split this review into sections so I don’t accidentally forget anything, and so I can give myself some structure for all my thoughts. Get ready. This is going to be a long one…
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P L O T
“Such is the quandary when it comes to magic, that it is not an issue of strength but of balance. For too little power, and we become weak. Too much, and we become something else entirely.”
The plot of this book is…not what I expected. Yes, I expected magic, and yes there is certainly magic at every turn, but the main plot really boils down to the protagonist’s secret (illegal) hobby and the repercussions of getting caught for it. There’s a lot more to it, but it’s just really interesting that so much happens from one small action. The plot is subtle at first, mostly filled with world-building and character introductions, but one thing leads to another leads to another leads to another until suddenly the plot has taken a dark twist and the stakes are risen and the reader can hardly breathe from the tension. The build-up was magnificent and well-paced.
More specifically, I adored the idea of the parallel Londons and the fact that only two characters, Kell and Holland–the Antari–have the ability to travel between these worlds. While I tend to love magic in books, the way it was used in this book in particular had me completely enthralled. It really felt like a strong, almost tangible presence. (More on that later.) There really is just so much to love about this book even without the plot, but the fact that the plot was so interesting made for an addicting, fast read.
C H A R A C T E R S
“Kell managed an echo of her smile, and she gasped. “What’s that on your face?”
The smile vanished. “What?”
“Never mind,” she said, laughing. “It’s gone.”
Kell Maresh is really the main protagonist in this first book, and he’s a powerful magician, one of a dying breed. Specifically, he’s an Antari, capable of regular elemental magic as well as blood magic, which is what allows him to travel between the parallel Londons. He was basically adopted by the royal family of Red London when he was young and is therefore treated like a prince by the city. But what I loved most about Kell is that, despite his extra powerful abilities and his royalty status, he isn’t arrogant. Kell would have people believe he’s just a grumpy, 20-something year old, with his smiles being all too rare and his laughter even rarer. However, beneath his disgruntled nature, he’s actually quite kind, fiercely loyal, and has all the great qualities of a Hufflepuff. He is instantly and insanely likable. Reading from his point of view honestly just felt like catching up with an old friend, even in the beginning when I didn’t know really who he was. He quickly became one of my new favorite characters of all time, and I don’t say that lightly.
Our second protagonist, Delilah Bard (more commonly referred to as Lila) is from Grey London, where magic doesn’t exist. She’s a cross-dressing thief and a wannabe pirate, and anyone with any sense would know better than to cross her. Similarly to how I felt about Kell, I liked Lila instantly. I found her strangely relatable for someone whom I don’t immediately seem to have anything in common with. But her love of the sea and of boats, her all-black ensembles and, especially, her thirst for adventure and love of magic had me wanting to be her best friend. I can’t find the specific quote for the life of me, but once she runs into Kell and experiences his magic, she thinks about how magic must be that something that she’s been searching for, that adventure she seeks. Her magic-less world just seems so bleak once she knows that there’s more out there. And that just resonated with me. Because doesn’t everyone just wish for some form of magic that would make the world a little more interesting? And so Lila and I learned of Kell’s world together, bit by bit, and just as Lila fell more in love, so did I. Lila has a huge personality and loves knives maybe a little too much, but she definitely something special within the fantasy genre. I won’t be forgetting about her any time soon.
There are several other characters that stood out in this book (all of them, really), but Rhy, Kell’s brother and actual heir to the throne, was probably my favorite after Kell and Lila. Holland, the Antari from White London, was another standout. I know they get explored more in later books (at this point, I’ve read through the entire trilogy), but even in the first book, I loved them. In general, the characters in this story just felt so real, and I wanted to know more about each one of them.
W O R L D – B U I L D I N G + T H E M A G I C S Y S T E M
“There’s Dull London, Kell London, Creepy London, and Dead London,” she recited, ticking them off on her fingers. “See? I’m a fast learner.”
I’ve heard a few people call this trilogy cinematic, and that is partially due to the writing, but also without a doubt due to the amazing world-building. It’s easy to say “wow, this book really sucked me in” to a fantasy book, and I know I’m guilty of saying “I was sucked in completely” maybe too easily, but this book was different. Every time I opened it to continue reading, I was so engrossed that I felt I had jumped into the book. I could paint a perfect picture in my mind of each and every London, each character, everything. A lot of times, I see the general outline of a character’s face or the basics of a world, but I could see every detail of Kell and Lila, and I could see every nook and cranny of each of the Londons. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that was so immersive. Not to mention, the idea of parallel Londons felt new and unique.
Beyond world-building, I was highly impressed by the magic system and the way magic is dealt with by the characters in this book in general. Oh goodness. I mentioned earlier that I liked how magic felt like a tangible presence, like its own character. To expand, I absolutely loved how, in the Londons where magic existed, characters went by the idea that you either have total control over magic or that magic would gain control over you, as seen in the now non-existent Black London, where magic itself overcame the entire city and its people. Magic has so much power in this world. I also thought it was interesting how the magic didn’t follow a lineage. For example, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Kell, not born royal, was gifted with Antari power, while Rhy, heir to the throne, had little to no magical abilities. Then there were the Priests who were known for being able to perfectly balance all the types of elemental magic. It was all just cool to see. But beyond the standard elemental magic, I thought blood magic was fascinating as well. So, say Kell hurt himself. In order to heal, he’d have to use his own blood. If he wanted to travel between the worlds, he’d have to draw blood first. If he wanted to do any sort of magic that wasn’t elemental, he’d need blood. This whole book really just dealt with the repercussions of forbidden magic and also showed the balance of power between magic and magician. It was amazing and interesting and captivating to see what could and couldn’t happen in regard to magic in this world. I loved every aspect of it.
W R I T I N G
“Do you know what makes you weak?” said Holland. “You’ve never had to be strong. You’ve never had to try. You’ve never had to fight. And you’ve certainly never had to fight for your life.”
The writing in A Darker Shade of Magic was absolutely gorgeous. I fell so in love with V.E. Schwab’s sentence-weaving from the first page. It’s actually really difficult for me to describe how the writing made me feel, but it definitely made me all warm and fuzzy. I think the only way I can attempt to explain the phenomenon is by saying that I felt like the writing was wrapping me up in a warm blanket. Like the words were seeping through my skin and into my bones to stay forever. Opening this book felt strangely like coming home. I hear people talk a lot about finding the book, the book that they instantly click with, the book that haunts them. A Darker Shade of Magic was that book for me. I felt like I had found my book soulmate. Of course, Harry Potter will be my forever favorite, but I don’t think I’ve ever come closer than with this book to recreating that same feeling I get when I read HP. I’d say that’s a pretty huge statement for me to make. But boy, does V.E. Schwab have a way with words and a way with making sure her stories are impossible to forget. I felt similarly with This Savage Song, but this book just took all that love to a new level. (Art Credit)
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A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab has cemented itself as perhaps my new favorite book (after HP) of all time. Reading this book appealed to all of my senses. I could see the images clearly in my mind, I could hear the characters’ quips and fear and anger and happiness, I could smell the rosy Red London, and I could feel my heart squeezing at certain parts, racing at others. This book wasn’t just a fun read, it was an entire experience. And I loved it with my whole being.
If you’ve made it to the end of this review, firstly congrats, but secondly, if you haven’t added this to your TBR, what are you doing? Whether you typically read fantasy or not, you need to read this book. Okay? Just do it. You can thank me later.
Until next time,