Review A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
Synopsis: Kell is one of the last Travelers—rare magicians who choose a parallel universe to visit.
Grey London is dirty, boring, lacks magic, ruled by mad King George. Red London is where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire. White London is ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne. People fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. Once there was Black London—but no one speaks of that now.
Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler, personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, carrying the monthly correspondences between royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell smuggles for those willing to pay for even a glimpse of a world they’ll never see. This dangerous hobby sets him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a dangerous enemy, then forces him to another world for her ‘proper adventure’.
But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive—trickier than they hoped.
Rating: 4/5 stars
Genres: Fantasy, Time Travel, Historical
Future books in the series:
“Magic was a truly beautiful disease.”
As soon as I read the first lines of A Darker Shade of Magic, I also knew the perfect word to describe it — imaginative. I honestly believe that it has one of the most stunning concepts and I mentally coupled it with Deathless by Catherine M. Valente, because they are definitely the reigning king and queen in this category.
The world-building, the intrigue, the plot — every single detail of it was tinted in complexity. The basic plotline is this one: in a world where Grey London is magicless, Red London thrives on magic, White London barely survives and Black London was destroyed by magic, the only ones that can travel between the “parallel” universes are called Antari. Sadly, there are only two of them left, with one being our main character Kell, and when he accidentally brings a token from the corrupted Black London into the Red and Grey Londons that threatens to ruin them as well, he makes it his goal to right the wrong and save them from impending doom.
“But the thing about magic,” added Kell, “is that it preys on the strong-minded and the weak-willed, and one of the worlds couldn’t stop itself. The people fed on the magic and the magic fed on them until it ate their bodies and their minds and then their souls.”
The multiple worlds were incredibly fascinating, especially the threads connecting them and I tremendously enjoyed learning the principles about the magic in the novel. How you can communicate with it, how it needs balance and how it can consume. I associated it constantly with the political power from our world and how the desire trumps the logic.
The worlds themselves were a wonder to behold, each with their characteristic traits, but all having a whiff of bloodlust in the air. This immediately set the tone in the air and, at times, the book felt like a thriller. I got chills, goosebumps and everything in between thanks to the heavy atmosphere and painful sequences, because ADSOM is splattered with battles, internal conflicts, deception and gut-wrenching intensity.
Kell was definitely an interesting character, with layers upon layers of flaws, but still a hero. I loved that he was arrogant and supportive, loyal and really clever and even a bit merciless when the story demanded it. It was a nice change from the constant flow of perfect-incarnate MCs we so often meet and I admired his internal struggles so damn much.
“Are you ready?” she asked, spinning the chamber.
Kell gazed through the gate at the waiting castle. “No.”
At that, she offered him the sharpest edge of a grin. “Good,” she said. “The ones who think they’re ready always end up dead.”
Ah, and his relationship with his brother Rhy was worthy of a parabatai oath because, quite frankly, it tore me to pieces. This kind of bromance greatly makes up for any lack of romance and Rhy himself was a wonderful secondary character that reminded me of Nikolai Lantsov from The Grisha Trilogy with his easygoing and charming personality.
“What sons our parents have,” said Kell gently. “Between the two of us, we’ll tear the whole world down.”
Astrid and Athos Dane, the twin rulers of White London, could easily give The Commander from An Ember in the Ashes a run for her money in the vicious department. They were absolutely terrifying and edged Levana from The Lunar Chronicles with their paranoia, mindfucking and control-freak tendencies.
“The bodies in my floor all trusted someone. Now I walk on them to tea.”
Holland, the other Antari, was a different matter. He was a worthy antagonist, brutal and remorseless, but at the same time I pitied him a great lot because he was merely a puppet — and I mean that literally– in the twins’ hands. And after seeing the sequel’s synopsis, I have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of him.
But you wanna know what the greatest thing about these villains is? The fact that they are not the “baddest” ones out there.
“Bad magic, Kell had called it.
No, thought Lila now. Clever magic.
And clever was more dangerous than bad any day of the week.”
Yep, that’s right. There’s a worse thing on the loose, personified by the magic from Black London. It’s called Vitari and the Danes seemed like lost puppies compared to this thing. It’s the absolute boss of the world, seeing that it contaminates the universe like a sickness and it actually has thoughts and plans and so much power it’s just brrrr. The fact that it cannot be destroyed only quadruples the sheer magnitude of its force and the characters’ realization and acceptance of this detail brings the story to the point of shit shit shit.
The ending was perfect for a standalone, giving a satisfying closure to most loose ends, but I was equally thrilled to find out afterwards that there will be more books. I hope we’ll delve deeper into the danger of Black London and how its insane animated magic could wreak havoc once again.
However, there were two slight issues I had that kept me from rating this to the maximum, but I believe they don’t necessarily tear at its splendor — they’re more personal issues that derive from perspective. Firstly, it took me a while to get fully immersed in the story and be kept glued to the pages and sometimes the pace wavered and the sensation reappeared. Secondly, Lila Bard, Kell’s new friend, companion and potential love interest in the future, a character that had its own POV and was within the story every step of the way, often infuriated me. Lila bordered on childish with her stubbornness and her actions were cringe-worthy (on more than several occasions she unconsciously helped the shit hit the fan), but I’ll admit that by the end she grew on me. After all, she was brave, strong and adventurous and the no-bullshit type I usually adore.
Victoria Schwab is a master of storytelling and she won me over with her exquisite writing style. From the amazingly built world and unique characters to the creative plot, she crafted a glorious novel. I bumped Vicious high up my list, because if someone managed to get me excited and scared at the same time, then by all means — do it again.
“No one suffers as beautifully as you.”
A Darker Shade of Magic is a crowning jewel of this genre. Intricate, exhilarating and violent in an elegant manner, this book will surely stun you with its incredible development and, ironically and masochistically, make you crave more of its coldblooded and ruthless universe.