Last week, I gave my thoughts on Vicious, by V.E. Schwab. This week, I delve into A Darker Shade of Magic, as promised.
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.
My feelings about this book? Fear.
Not right off, mind. I started with curiosity, as the pages gradually unfolded the workings of these four parallel Londons stacked neatly atop one another, the workings of magic, the workings of the minds and hearts of Kell and Delilah. The worldbuilding satisfied me; never a dam bursting with information to overwhelm the reader and clog the story, but plenty of rich detail tucked between one plot point and another.
But from the outset, I was faintly ill-at-ease. In a good way.
Perhaps it was the tone, almost pleasant, but stained at the edges with a discontent and darkness. Perhaps it was Kell’s mismatched eyes, one pale, one the edge-to-edge black of an Anatari–a blood magician. Perhaps it was an early and unexplained visit by White London’s ambassador, the one other known Antari in any of the realms. Is he the villain? I wondered, or is the situation far more complicated than that? Time (and Schwab’s straightforward and largely seamless writing) would tell.
Whatever the cause, I had the definite sense that the balance between these worlds might be threatened far too easily. And of course, it was. The fear began, then, at first trickling in, then thickening in a steady incline throughout the whole of the book. V.E. Schwab knows how to set the flame under a plot and turn it hotter, ever hotter, until everything is engulfed in an explosion of tensions at the climax.
But while interesting and fully-fleshed worlds, finger-tingling new magic systems, well-woven plot arcs, and marvelous infinity-coats (Did I not mention Kell’s enviable coat of many dimensions?) are wonderful and even necessary, in my eyes, books live and die by their characters. The world(s) get five stars from me. The magic system? Five stars. The plot? Five stars. The dialogue and one-liners? Five stars. The coat? Six stars. The characters?
*Sigh* Four stars. Now, that’s not too bad a rating, but it’s just a little sad for me when compared to the excellence of the rest–and to the absolutely magnificent cast of persons Schwab created in Vicious.
I liked them. Kell, young and immensely powerful, was a good blend of sweet and cocksure, happy, but touched with bitter melancholy. Lila, I first feared would be a typical brash tomboy character, but while brash and tomboyish, she’s also a blase adrenaline junky who takes a fierce delight in life, and has a refreshing lack of angst for a teenaged girl. Even when she’s cutting throats.
They were good. Just not great. They were… almost complex. Almost vivid. Almost breathing. Almost superb. Almost captivating. Perhaps part of the fault lies in the fact that the entire novel covers a relatively short amount of time–less than a week, I think—and they were in the thick of a flurrious plot for most of it. But they simply fell short of popping off of the page.
Here’s the oddity. Most of the secondary characters, I’d give five stars. Holland, the hard and humorless White London Antari. His pale, super-creepy twin rulers. Rhy, Red London’s crown prince, and Kell’s adoptive brother, the embodiment of “charming rouge,” but more than that as well. Even the Grey London tavern keeper, and the Red London fencer.
Even with the two main characters at four stars, the book averages out to five stars for me, though, and I eagerly await the release of A Gathering of Shadows, second in the to-be trilogy. Perhaps I’ll find what I was looking for in Kell and Lila there. And if not–there’s sure to be another crop of lines to make me grin. I’ll leave you with these.
Bad magic, Kell had called it.
No, thought Lila now. Clever magic.
And clever was more dangerous than bad any day of the week.
He would see her again. He knew he would. Magic bent the world. Pulled it into shape. There were fixed points. Most of the time they were places. But sometimes, rarely, they were people. For someone who never stood still, Lila felt like a pin in Kell’s world. One he was sure to snag on.
“Sure I do,” countered Lila cheerfully. “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’m not going to die,” she said. “Not till I’ve seen it.”
Her smile widened. “Everything.”