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.
I picked up my first V.E. Schwab novel almost reluctantly (and I still can’t figure out why I was reluctant.). I read that novel, called Vicious, at the beginning of this year, and reviewed it a few weeks ago. Spoiler for the review: I loved it. I’m really annoyed at myself for not reading it earlier, and I was determined not to make that mistake again. Thus, I preordered Schwab’s next adult novel, A Darker Shade of Magic, immediately upon finishing Vicious, and anxiously awaited its arrival.
Due to various printing shortages—the book was much more popular than I think the publisher anticipated that it would be—I did not get a copy on release day. I ordered both editions—US and UK—and I actually received my UK copy first, even though it shipped from the UK. I finally managed to get my hands on my US copy this week—which came with a beautiful two-sided poster, with each of the covers shown above on one side. All of this meant that I did not get to start A Darker Shade of Magic until my spring break, and even then, I had to finish my Lord of the Rings reread first. When I finally did, I had only a few days left in my spring break, so I did what any sensible person would do.
I read A Darker Shade of Magic in a single day, starting in the morning, and finishing around 2 AM before I went to sleep that night.
And I don’t regret it one bit. The book was amazing. The pacing was almost non-stop. A Darker Shade of Magic has a linear storytelling structure, not the fragmented jumps of Vicious. Each chapter is only a few pages long, and the book itself is divided into perhaps a dozen sections, each of which has its own label. To me, the sections felt more like chapters, while the numbered chapters within each section felt more like scene breaks than full chapters. Nevertheless, this style produced a keen sense of “Just one more chapter, just one more…” that made the book nearly impossible to put down. I hadn’t originally planned to finish reading it in a single day, but it was so good that I just couldn’t not finish it. I do not envy those who read the 130-page preview ahead of time and then had to wait for months to get their hands on the finished novel. It must have been torture.
The magic system itself is rather vague, though the parts of it that are necessary for the plot are explained thoroughly enough that it does not cause problems. The magic, which grants a basic control over the elements in Red London, more mysterious and general powers in White London, and gives the Atmani, a select few, the power to travel between the three, once four, parallel Londons, is a well balanced system that can easily be used for malicious purposes as well as good ones, and we see the full range of this in the book.
The plot itself, centering around a mysterious magical artifact that seems determined to wreak all the havoc that it can, is very dark—even the good characters do horrible things, often by accident, and make plenty of bad decisions. They are, after all, human, regardless of which London they come from. And while the plot and the pacing are what drove the book along, making me turn page after page until I ran out of pages (and immediately went searching for a sequel, which I was happy to learn is currently in the edits stage), it’s thees characters that made each and every page satisfying and awesome.
Kell, the main character, is a man who does not know his own past, but can travel between the parallel Londons, as long as he has the proper tools (What is it with Ke/al(l)s? Keladry of Mindelan, Kaladin, Kelsier… They make awesome characters.), and he is fascinating. As one of the only two known remaining Atmani, he is subject to strict rules, but there is hardly anyone with the power to enforce them upon him, and so he deals in a lively illegal trade of items from one world to another. The fact that he doesn’t need to do this—he is royalty in Red London, where he lives, simply by virtue of his magical powers—simply makes it that much more exciting for him, and intriguing for the reader. I love the fact that even our “hero” has his illegal side habits. And a cool coat. Never forget the coat of many sides.
Perhaps my favorite character is Rhy, the prince of Red London. He’s just so irrepressible it’s impossible to not like him. His attitude, his sense of humor, his self-aware pompousness, all add a welcome levity to any scene he wanders in to. He serves as an excellent counterbalance to Kell, who has seen and been so many places, and knows the dark things that can happen. And, as Kell put it, “he would flirt with a nicely upholstered chair.”
Lila—Delilah Bard—is probably the favorite character of most readers. A wanna-be pirate orphan from our London, she is always in search of an adventure—and never afraid to use whatever leverage she has to get her way. While she definitely scares me a little bit—she has too few qualms about killing, for one—she is also awesome, and I enjoyed her viewpoints as well.
The evil characters were so well done that I still cringe a little bit thinking about them. The Dane twins, Astrid and Athos, rulers of White London, clawed their way into power, and, unlike so many rulers I’ve read before, I can totally believe that they did it—and see why they have maintained their position. They utterly creep me out, as does their unwilling servant Holland, who is the only other known Atmani. *Shudder*
In summary, all of Schwab’s characters are just absolutely amazing. I only spent 400 pages with them, yet I feel like I know them all—and the 400 pages was far too little time to enjoy their company. I thought the pace was utterly perfect, and I really enjoyed reading about the various Londons that she has imagined, all in a single day. I give this book five of five stars, and it’s the kind of book that makes me wonder if all of the other five star books really deserved that rating. I am eagerly awaiting the rest of the trilogy.